WASHINGTON – The White House said Thursday that North Korea's secret work on a nuclear reactor with Syria was "a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the world," raising doubts about Pyongyang's intention to carry through with a promised disclosure of its nuclear activities.
Seven months after Israel bombed the reactor, the White House broke its silence and said North Korea assisted Syria's secret nuclear program and that the destroyed facility was not intended for "peaceful purposes."
Top U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters said they had high confidence in the judgment that North Korea had aided Syria with its nuclear program and the intention was to produce plutonium. But they claimed only low confidence for the conclusion that it was meant for weapons development, in part because there was no reprocessing facility at the site — something that would be needed to enrich nuclear material for use in a bomb.
The Bush administration's assertions could undermine six-party negotiations to try to resolve the nuclear standoff with North Korea. But a senior administration official told reporters he hoped the disclosure would instead provide leverage to officials trying to get an accurate accounting of North Korea's nuclear and proliferation activities.
The White House issued a two-page statement after lawmakers were given details about the reactor in a series of briefings on Capitol Hill that included a video presentation of intelligence information the administration contends establishes a strong link between North Korea's nuclear program and the bombed Syrian site. The briefing also included still photographs that showed a strong resemblance between specific features of the plant and one near Yongbyon in North Korea.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the revelations make it clear that any deal to eliminate North Korea's nuclear programs must also stop its proliferation activities and include vigorous verification. But he said the information in the briefings was not a cause to end the talks.
"To the contrary, it underscores the need for pursuing the talks, which remain our best chance to convince North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and to stop proliferation," Biden said.
The White House said the International Atomic Energy Agency also was being briefed on the intelligence.
While calling North Korea's nuclear assistance to Syria a "dangerous manifestation" of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and its proliferation activities, the White House said it remained committed to the talks.
The United States became aware North Korea was helping Syria with a nuclear project in 2003, said intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity. The critical intelligence that cemented that conclusion, they said, came last year: dozens of photographs taken from ground level over a period of time, showing the construction both inside and outside the building.
The Israeli strike on Sept. 6, 2007, ripped open the structure, known as the Al Kibar reactor, and revealed even more evidence to spy satellites: reinforced concrete walls that echoed the design of the Yongbyon reactor.
After the attack, Syria tried to bury evidence of its existence and erected a new building to hide the site. The building is not believed to house a new reactor, the officials said.
"This cover-up only served to reinforce our confidence that this reactor was not intended for peaceful activities," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities."
The Syrian reactor was within weeks or months of being functional when Israeli jets destroyed it, a top U.S. official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The official said the facility was mostly completed but still needed fueling and significant testing before it could be declared operational.
"We had to assume they could throw the switch at any time," a senior intelligence official said.
No uranium, which is needed to fuel a reactor, was evident at the site, a remote area of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River. But senior U.S. intelligence officials said the reactor was similar in design to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, which has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, the material needed to make powerful nuclear weapons.
A senior intelligence official said the intelligence agencies believe North Korea was motivated by "cash" rather than a desire to obtain plutonium from the reactor.
Syria has maintained in the past that the site was an unused military facility, and on Thursday, its embassy denounced what it called the U.S. "campaign of false allegations." It accused the administration of trying to mislead Congress and world opinion "in order to justify the Israeli raid in September of 2007, which the current U.S. administration may have helped execute."
Senior U.S. officials said the U.S. military was not involved in the attack, and the U.S. government, although informed in advance, did not approve it.
"Israel made the decision to attack," a senior administration official said. "It did so without any so-called green light from us. None was asked for and none was given."
"It has become obvious that this maneuver on the part of this administration comes within the framework of the North Korean nuclear negotiations," the Syrian statement said.
And in an apparent reference to prewar claims by the Bush administration that Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction, the statement concluded: "The Syrian government hopes that the international community and the American public, particularly, will be more cautious and aware this time around in facing such unfounded allegations."
Top members of the House Intelligence Committee who were briefed on the reactor said it posed a serious threat of spreading dangerous nuclear materials.
"This is a serious proliferation issue, both for the Middle East and the countries that may be involved in Asia," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.
Hoekstra and Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, told reporters after the closed briefing that they were angry that the Bush administration had delayed informing the full committee for so long. That delay has created friction that may imperil congressional support for Bush's policies toward North Korea and Syria, Hoekstra said.
The White House also used its statement as an opportunity to denounce the nuclear activities of Iran, which it says is a threat to the stability of the Middle East. Perino said the international community must take further steps, beginning with full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
While Washington was awash in condemnation of North Korea's proliferation activities, the communist regime is expressing optimism about current six-party negotiations with the United States, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan. The optimism over the talks is raising hopes of breaking the impasse that has deadlocked arms negotiations.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it had discussed technical matters with the Americans for moving forward on that and other agreements from the arms talks. "The negotiations proceeded in a sincere and constructive manner and progress was made," the ministry said in a statement.
As part of that process, the North is required to submit a "declaration" detailing its programs and proliferation activity, but the talks are stalled over Pyongyang's refusal to publicly admit the Syria connection. However, officials say the North Koreans are willing to accept international "concern" about unspecified proliferation.