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CIA Presents New Evidence of Syria-N. Korea Nuclear Link

April 24, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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CIA officials briefed House and Senate members Thursday on classified evidence, including a video, linking North Korea to a Syrian nuclear facility that Israel bombed in September 2007. A reporter discusses the details of the emerging story.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now the tangled story of Syria, North Korea, and Israel.

Today, U.S. intelligence officials released a video to congressional committees. It purported to show Syria was building — with North Korean help — a reactor that could possibly produce bomb-grade plutonium.

Israel bombed and destroyed the site in September 2007.

Robin Wright has been covering the story for the Washington Post, and she joins us from the Post’s newsroom. She’s covered the Middle East for decades and is author of the new book, “Dreams and Shadows.”

And, Robin, you’ve just coming from a briefing with a senior administration intelligence official about the site, about the Syria-North Korea link, and about its bombing. Tell us what you learned this afternoon.

ROBIN WRIGHT, Washington Post: Well, the administration and intelligence officials told us that this is a project that dates back to 1997, when they got the first indication that North Korea and Syria were working on a project together.

That the construction of the facility began in 2001, but the United States was not fully convinced that this particular site was that nuclear facility until some time after 2005.

And that it confirmed earlier in 2007 that the site that they’ve now identified as Al Kibar, out in the remote desert on the Euphrates River, was, indeed, a site that was capable of producing plutonium, was not being used for electricity, and was ill-suited for research.

And that led them to conclude that this was part of a weapons program.

RAY SUAREZ: Was this the same kind of reactor, according to the administration, that the North Koreans had been working on themselves at home?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Yes. They believe that — they claim that North Korea had basically copied its own nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and rebuilt it in this remote Syrian desert site, that it’s almost an exact replica.

And they produced photos to show the similarity, particularly in the fuel rods and the cooling rods, to show the same kind of configuration physically.

Evidence of Korean involvement

Robin Wright
The Washington Post
I think, while we had suspicions that there was proliferation going on between the [Syria and North Korea], they didn't know until 2007 for sure that this facility was a covert nuclear reactor.

RAY SUAREZ: What evidence is there that this was not for any other purposes, that this was a joint venture, that it was, in fact, a nuclear reactor that was only a short time away from being functional?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Yes, they said it was weeks or months away from being fully operational. But the intelligence officials also said they did not find fuel loaded into the facility, so there was still some steps that needed to be taken.

Again, they cite that this was a North Korean facility, the kind of thing that only North Korea has built over the last 35 years, and that that would indicate its strong role.

They had one picture only of a senior North Korean official with a senior Syrian official, both engaged in their country's nuclear energy programs and committees, and said that this was proof of the close connection.

There was not the kind of video we were all looking for showing North Koreans on the ground at this site helping build this facility.

RAY SUAREZ: You say the United States says that it was aware there was some kind of project going on since 1997 and only afterwards realized this was a joint nuclear project.

Does that mean that all the negotiations in recent years over a North Korean nuclear program, and building it down, and putting it out of operation was going on while we were aware that they were, allegedly, proliferating with the Syrians?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think, while we had suspicions that there was proliferation going on between the two, they didn't know until 2007 for sure that this facility was a covert nuclear reactor. And, yes, they did overlap. And that's one of the interesting curiosities about it.

New pressure on six-party talks

Robin Wright
The Washington Post
I think there will be those neo-conservatives, some Republicans who are questioning the six-party talks and the effort to try to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the Israelis consult the United States over this strike in September of last year?

ROBIN WRIGHT: It consulted the United States in the run-up to the strike on September 6th. It discussed the various options.

The United States also considered several options, a senior administration official told us. And Israel was the one finally to take the action against Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: As I'm sure you're aware, there was reaction today on the House Intelligence Committee to the full disclosure of what the United States has. A certain select body saw this evidence last fall. Does this put the deal between the United States and North Korea under some pressure?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think there will be those neo-conservatives, some Republicans who are questioning the six-party talks and the effort to try to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.

There's clearly a divide. And I think one of the interesting things is this evidence finally emerges after eight months at a time that you find real factions developing within the administration, just at this critical juncture, as North Korea is engaged in this direct effort to talk about its past activities.

The administration said today that it did not disclose the information earlier, at the time of the strike, because it was concerned that Syria might feel pressured to retaliate and this would trigger then a wider conflagration throughout the Middle East. And the United States was trying to avoid that.

Looking back now, after eight months, the administration official claimed that their risk assessment was lower and they felt it was an appropriate time to speak out, in part to pressure North Korea into complying with its agreement as part of the six-party talks.

Abiding by nonproliferation treaty

Robin Wright
The Washington Post
One of the interesting questions will be to see what happens at the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, in terms of its own actions in following up and pressing Syria to come clean.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the administration officially changed the terms, stiffened its demands on the North Koreans, either for full disclosure or a different set of requirements in building down Yongbyon and any other research?

ROBIN WRIGHT: No, I think there's a concern within the administration that North Korea has not met many of its deadlines and that, particularly at this juncture, as they're talking about dismantling the facility and providing a full list of its past activities, that this is the moment to tell the truth.

The administration official made clear that this was one of the messages to the North Koreans.

RAY SUAREZ: And where do things stand with the Syrians now? Today at the United Nations, they denied that such a project exists entirely and, at the same time, made a peace overture over the Golan Heights.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, the United States wants Syria to acknowledge what it was doing. It was in violation of its commitment under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

It should have told the International Atomic Energy Agency from the moment it began the project years ago of its intent and what kind of equipment it was acquiring, who it was working with.

And so one of the interesting questions will be to see what happens at the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, in terms of its own actions in following up and pressing Syria to come clean.

RAY SUAREZ: Robin Wright of the Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.