ROME – A senior U.S. nuclear official said Friday that North Koreans were in Syria and that Damascus may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment.
Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, did not identify the suppliers, but said North Koreans were in the country and that he could not exclude that the network run by the disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan may have been involved.
He said it was not known if the contacts had produced any results. "Whether anything transpired remains to be seen," he said.
Syria has never commented publicly on its nuclear program. It has a small research nuclear reactor, as do several other countries in the region, including Egypt. While Israel and the U.S. have expressed concerns in the past, Damascus has not been known to make a serious push to develop a nuclear energy or weapons program.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on Semmel's remarks but noted that the United States had longstanding concerns about North Korea and nuclear proliferation.
"We've also expressed, over time, our concerns about North Korea's activities in terms of dealing with A.Q. Khan and others around the globe," he told reporters.
McCormack said he was not aware of any specific link between North Korea and Syria.
Proliferation experts have said that Syria's weak economy would make it hard-pressed to afford nuclear technology, and that Damascus — which is believed to have some chemical weapons stocks — may have taken the position that it does not also need nuclear weapons.
Semmel was responding to questions about an Israeli airstrike in northern Syria last week. Neither side has explained what exactly happened, but a U.S. government official confirmed that Israeli warplanes were targeting weapons from Iran and destined for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Israel had gathered satellite imagery showing possible North Korean cooperation with Syria on a nuclear facility.
North Korea, which has a longstanding alliance with Syria, condemned the Israeli air incursion. Israeli experts say North Korea and Iran both have been major suppliers of Syria's missile stock.
Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Thursday that the accusations of North Korean nuclear help were a "new American spin to cover up" for Israel.
Semmel, who is in Italy for a meeting Saturday on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, said Syria was certainly on the U.S. "watch list."
"There are indicators that they do have something going on there," he said. "We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen."
"So good foreign policy, good national security policy, would suggest that we pay very close attention to that," he said. "We're watching very closely. Obviously, the Israelis were watching very closely."
Asked if the suppliers could have been North Koreans, he said: "There are North Korean people there. There's no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran."
Asked if the so-called Khan network, which supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, could have been involved, he said he "wouldn't exclude" it.