CIA: Syrian site was North Korean plutonium-producing nuclear reactor

The CIA will tell Congress today that the North Koreans had begun to build a nuclear reactor at a site in Syria bombed by the Israelis last year. The timing of the briefing appears related to the expected resolution of the six-nation plan to disarm the DPRK in the next few weeks, according to the Los Angeles Times. It may create new political difficulties for the Bush administration, but more likely it is intended to fulfill a Congressional demand for information to clear hurdles for ratification of the agreement with North Korea:

CIA officials will tell Congress on Thursday that North Korea had been helping Syria build a plutonium-based nuclear reactor, a U.S. official said, a disclosure that could touch off new resistance to the administration’s plan to ease sanctions on Pyongyang.

The CIA officials will tell lawmakers that they believe the reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons but was destroyed before it could do so, the U.S. official said, apparently referring to a suspicious installation in Syria that was bombed last year by Israeli warplanes.

The CIA officials also will say that though U.S. officials have had concerns for years about ties between North Korea and Syria, it was not until last year that new intelligence convinced them that the suspicious facility under construction in a remote area of Syria was a nuclear reactor, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing plans for the briefing.

By holding closed, classified briefings for members of several congressional committees, the administration will break a long silence on North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation and on what it knows about last year’s destruction of the Syrian facility. Nonetheless, it has been widely assumed for months that many in the administration considered the site a nuclear installation.

Members of Congress have demanded a briefing on this subject for months. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, had actually wanted testimony before the entire Congress to demonstrate the danger of proliferation that North Korea represents. Now, with the Bush administration pressuring Pyongyang to come clean on all of its nuclear activities, it appears that the White House is ready to go public in an attempt to force Kim Jong-Il into compliance.

This answers a question that really hadn’t generated much doubt. Israel doesn’t usually risk air strikes into hostile Arab nations unless the stakes are significant. Even more revealing, Syria didn’t register any strenuous public objections after the clearly provocative attack on its nation. That could only mean that Syria had something so important to hide that it didn’t want international attention drawn to the site. That either meant a nuclear-weapons site or Saddam’s missing WMD.

Now we have our answer. It looks like Israel prevented another Osirak from completion, and with it a deadly shift in the balance of power in the Middle East.

How does this affect the status of the agreement with Kim? It won’t generate meaningful opposition from Congress, which will be disinclined to oppose a multilateral agreement for peace and normalization after years of Democratic accusations of war-mongering against Bush. The agreement itself doesn’t take effect until the DPRK meets its obligations. This looks like a shot across Kim’s bow, letting him know that if he doesn’t start the disclosure process, the US will do so itself in a manner which may cause him problems with his other clients.