North Korea helped Syria construct a nuclear reactor that was “within weeks of completion” when Israel destroyed the facility last September, according to a senior US official.
The White House has maintained a shroud of secrecy since Israel struck the facility, which Syria codenamed “al-Kibar”. The Central Intelligence Agency yesterday briefed Congress on the mysterious incident. Syria yesterday denied the allegations.
The public disclosure of the allegations comes at a highly sensitive time for the six-party talks on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. The US recently reached a tentative agreement in which North Korea would “acknowledge”, but not admit to, US concerns about the alleged proliferation to Syria. The reason the US has stayed silent until now is that it feared conflict between Israel and Syria.
Speaking before the CIA briefed Congress yesterday, the US official told the Financial Times that North Korea and Syria started discussing the project in 1997, and that actual construction began in 2003.
The official said the intelligence would provide an “eye- popping, comprehensive briefing that will demonstrate how close Syria came to having a nuclear weapons making capability”.
The CIA briefing included a video that brings together a compilation of still images, including satellite imagery, ground imagery and photographs taken inside the facility.
One image shows a North Korean nuclear scientist, Chon Chibu, standing beside his Syrian counterpart. Mr Chon, who worked at North Korea’s Yongbyon plutonium reactor, has previously dealt with US officials. While the date of the photograph was unclear, the official said the vintage of a car that appears in the background suggested it was after mid-2005.
The US believes North Korea provided designs for the Syrian reactor, which was a “dead ringer” for Yongbyon, in addition to supplying engineering and construction staff. The official said Washington was unclear whether any North Koreans were killed in the Israeli air strike.
While US and Israeli intelligence suggests Syria was very close to completing the reactor, they have no evidence it had obtained plutonium to feed it.
“The US does not have any indication of how Syria would fuel this reactor, and no information that North Korea had already, or intended to, provide the reactor’s fuel,” said David Albright, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Science and International Security. “This type of reactor requires a large supply of uranium fuel. The lack of any identified source of this fuel raises questions about when the reactor could have operated.”
The US official said the facility had “all the earmarkings of a reactor that was going to be used to produce fissile material”.
Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, said yesterday that North Korea would have to provide “clear” information about the US allegations before the US would consider lifting sanctions on the Stalinist regime.
After receiving the intelligence briefing, Mr Hoekstra said: “By waiting so long to brief the intelligence committee and other committees on the Hill, the administration has . . . really damaged the relationship with Congress.”