WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration is expected to tell U.S. lawmakers on Thursday it believes North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.
The White House has said little about the possibility of such cooperation between the two since Israel conducted a mysterious September 6 air strike on Syria that media reports said targeted a nuclear site being built with Pyongyang’s help.
“The sense is that the Syrians, with the help of the North Koreans, were attempting to build an undeclared facility that could indeed produce plutonium,” said the official, who spoke on condition he not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, of the congressional briefings’ likely content.
The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal reported the information in their Wednesday editions.
The U.S. official did not explicitly tie the closed-door briefings to the Israeli strike but hinted at this by saying “if an undeclared reactor in dangerous hands were put out of commission before it was operational, that’s a good thing.”
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja’afari told reporters: “There was no Syria-North Korea cooperation whatsoever in Syria. We deny these rumors.”
While a handful of lawmakers were briefed on the issue last year, the decision to widen the circle comes as Washington appears closer to a deal for North Korea to provide an overdue declaration of its nuclear programs.
Once the poor, communist state has produced the declaration, the United States is expected to ease sanctions on Pyongyang that flow from its presence on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act.
Analysts believe Thursday’s briefings aim to persuade members of Congress that easing the sanctions is justified.
There is skepticism, especially among the administration’s Republican allies in Congress, that relaxing the sanctions is warranted and there are concerns North Korea will not produce the “complete and correct” declaration of its nuclear programs it has promised under a multilateral agreement.
The declaration is one step toward carrying out a 2005 agreement among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States in which North Korea committed to abandoning any nuclear weapons and programs.
Under a tentative deal being discussed, North Korea would produce a declaration on its plutonium-related program but address suspicions on nuclear proliferation with Syria and on its suspected uranium enrichment program in a different way.
According to people familiar with the plan, Washington would put forward its concerns about North Korea’s suspected uranium enrichment program and nuclear proliferation and North Korea would then “acknowledge the U.S. concerns.”
Critics fear the administration may accept a partial declaration — something the State Department denies.
Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert with the CSIS think tank in Washington, said that if the United States has strong evidence North Korea assisted Syria on nuclear development this might allay congressional concerns.
“If it turns out we have them dead to rights — that we have enough information on our own — then we can eliminate this as a point of contention,” he said. “Maybe we don’t need to negotiate transparency with North Korea because we already know enough.”
The briefings could open a diplomatic Pandora’s box for the United States with implications for its dealings with close ally Israel as well as with Syria and North Korea, which have had poor relations with Washington.
One matter of sensitivity for Israel — which is widely believed to be the source of some of the intelligence on Syria — is the possibility that wider disclosure could antagonize Damascus and produce a negative reaction.
Syria is regarded by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and has long hosted Palestinian groups that have carried out attacks on Israelis.
The briefing could also irk North Korea, which U.S. officials say is sensitive to the possible disclosure of any nuclear proliferation it may have engaged in.
However, some congressional aides and analysts said a briefing is a necessity if the administration is to win support for continuing the six-party process and for providing the funds needed to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities.