[Overseas view] Air strike on Syria raises red flagsIsrael’s Sept. 6 air strike on a Syrian site close to the Turkish border continues to be shrouded in mystery. We know for certain that there was an air strike; that it hit a facility that looked from commercially available satellite imagery to be similar in layout to North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor; that Syria promptly cleaned up the site after the raid; and that according to at least one senior United States official, there were North Koreans at the site.
The only government that has criticized the attack has been North Korea. The U.S. government has demonstrated uncharacteristic discipline about not providing the press any details. Although I was recently in the Bush administration, I can claim no knowledge about what actually happened.
The least detrimental scenario for the six-party process would be that Israel saw a vaguely suspicious facility on satellite images and decided to take military action to restore credibility for the Israeli Defense Forces. After their poor performance last summer against Hezbollah, and Israel needed to send a warning to Iran about its own nuclear weapons program.
That scenario is plausible. But it is equally plausible that Israel had more concrete evidence than that, based on satellite imagery that surpasses the commercially available pictures, human intelligence and perhaps other assets such as unmanned aerial drones. Moreover, at the U.S.-China-North Korea trilateral talks in April 2003 North Korea’s chief delegate, Li Gun, had warned that the so-called hostile policy of the United States could cause Pyongyang to “expand,” “demonstrate” and/or “transfer” its deterrent capability. Subsequent to that warning, Pyongyang expanded its arsenal by harvesting and reprocessing plutonium from Yongbyon (not to mention the unknown level of progress on uranium enrichment) and demonstrated its ability through the Oct. 2006 test. Was there also some form of transfer? It is possible Li was giving accurate warnings about all three threats.
The U.S. government’s careful secrecy is raising more questions. Members of Congress are deeply unhappy that the details of the North Korea-Syria connection are only being briefed to a small group, and some of those who have been briefed have publicly argued that the information should be shared. The Japanese government has also expressed concern and asked for more details. If the Israeli intelligence was flimsy, one would expect a leak from advocates of engagement to reveal that point.
The Korea Economic Institute in Washington recently held a symposium called “What If They Did It?” to speculate on what the potential impact would be if North Korea were actively involved in a Syrian reactor project.
I argued at the symposium that the administration would probably face two contradictory imperatives if the North Korea-Syria connection were serious. On the one hand, there would be pressure to continue the six-party talks to complete phase two of the February agreement by the end of the year. The administration would be wary of reopening a crisis with North Korea just as they are beginning to build consensus in the United Nations Security Council to keep pressure on Iran, which could still be dissuaded from developing nuclear weapons unlike North Korea, which has already crossed that line.
The administration would also be concerned about halting its diplomacy with North Korea without having a diplomatic framework in place to contain the problem. That was the lesson of the 2002 decision by KEDO to cut off heavy fuel oil to the North because of the clandestine uranium program; ending the oil shipments may have been appropriate, but the crisis deepened because there was no other diplomatic framework available until the establishment of the six-party process ― and in the interim Pyongyang began reprocessing its plutonium. Given the likelihood that any Syrian reactor project would predate the current Sept. 2006 six-party agreement and would be years away from completion, some would argue that there is time to use progress in the denuclearization talks to secure North Korean guarantees against further transfers.
On the other hand, there would also be voices warning that North Korea had already crossed a dangerous red line. Vice President Dick Cheney has been particularly adamant that the United States must prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or state sponsors of terrorism.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage warned in a Congressional testimony after Li’s threat in April 2003 that such a transfer “was a red line” ― this was the only red line clearly articulated by the administration, in fact. After North Korea tested its nuclear device in October 2006, President Bush was clear in his televised address that the United States would hold North Korea accountable for any possible transfer. If North Korea were involved in any such relationship with Syria, these warnings would require the United States to hold Pyongyang accountable.
That would not mean a military strike on the North, but would raise questions about whether the United States could continue moving forward with the six-party process as business as usual. Because the credibility of the United States’ extended deterrence against the use or transfer of nuclear weapons is a matter of perception, even the perception that North Korea might have been involved in a nuclear transfer to Syria would require a stern response to maintain U.S. credibility.
These considerations could push the administration to consider pausing, if not halting, its diplomacy with North Korea.
We still do not know exactly what happened between North Korea and Syria on nuclear facilities, if anything. But it already seems that there is enough of a connection to warrant caution about rushing to complete phase two of the Feb. 13 agreement. The declaration to be prepared by North Korea should now include any technical, training or personnel relationships with Syria or other countries. Congress, the International Atomic Energy Agency and allies should be briefed on what we do know about the North Korean connection to the Syrian site.
The negotiators in the six-party process should avoid making compromises on disablement or removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism to keep on schedule. Timing of the agreement now matters much less than credibility.
It is precisely because we need the six-party talks to deal with the nuclear problem peacefully that this new Syria angle should cause a more cautious and careful attitude.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
By Michael Green