Der Spiegel has published an explosive new expose on Syria’s nuclear program that has not gotten the attention it deserves. The report reopens long-standing questions about the Syria-North Korea relationship.
After the Israeli bombing of the Kibar site in September 2007, Syria made every effort to make sure that no inferences could be drawn about the country’s nuclear efforts. The site itself was bulldozed, but an IAEA team was ultimately admitted and managed to find traces of uranium that the Syrians claimed were the result of Israeli ordinance. In short, but clear reports from February and May 2011, the IAEA details lack of Syrian cooperation on the issue. (In an incredible twist, ISIS has since seized control of the area around Kibar and has invited the IAEA back in to investigate it further; the IAEA declined the offer).
According to Spiegel, unnamed intelligence Western (or perhaps Israeli) sources say that as many as 8000 fuel rods may have been stored at Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA views with suspicion, and that either a reactor or enrichment facility was under construction there. But focus has now shifted to a new site, Qusayr, that was long believed to be a Hezbollah weapons depot and now appears to be the location of nuclear efforts. Particularly troubling is that both areas have been the site of fighting and that Hezbollah may have been enlisted to move sensitive materials. Moreover, this intelligence is not only the result of satellite images (which others, such as analysts at the Institute for Science and International Security also caught in 2011 and 2013) but of intercepted communications.
The North Korean connection comes through suspicions about continuity in the connections between the leaders of the Syrian nuclear effort—particularly Ibrahim Othman, head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission--and Chou Ji Bu, an engineer centrally involved in the construction of Yongbyon and believed to be involved in the construction at the Kibar site. According to Spiegel, “Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus.”
This story led us back to two excellent pieces of journalism that have put together the story of the Kibar bombing and its aftermath: the first by Erich Follath and Holger Stark at Spiegel in November 2009; the second by David Makovsky at The New Yorker in September 2012. Credit is also again due to David Albright at the Institute of Science and International Security, who pieced the story together in a succession of posts from October 2007 forward (here).
The stories are an incredible read of intrigue, intelligence and assassination. But a few bullets highlight the North Korean connections:
- In contrast to his father, the younger Assad was willing to take more risks, including with respect to North Korean assistance and passing weapons on to Hezbollah. As early as 2004, the US NSA had flagged the phone traffic between North Korea and Syria, including Kibar, and passed the information on to the Israelis who subsequently acted on it.
- The Mossad retrieved smoking gun photos of North Korean personnel by breaking into the hotel room of a Syrian official in London and installing a Trojan horse program.
- The North Korean role had wider implications because of revelations that the Syrian effort also involved Iranian assistance. According to the Spiegel story, “Al Kibar was to be a backup plant for the heavy-water reactor under construction near the Iranian city of Arak, designed to provide plutonium to build a bomb if Iran did not succeed in constructing a weapon using enriched uranium." Assad bought on for his own reasons.
- The most interesting tidbit in the earlier Spiegel coverage was that Assad “suggested to contacts in Pyongyang that he was considering the disclosure of his "national" nuclear program, but without divulging any details of cooperation with his North Korean and Iranian partners.” His logic: Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi reaped considerable benefits from the international community after a similar "confession" about his country's nuclear program. North Korea and Tehran were hardly happy about this; to the contrary, Pyongyang apparently threatened a termination of cooperation on chemical weapons if Assad proceeded with his plan, and regardless of whether he pointed the finger at Pyongyang or not.
- The Markovsky piece has interesting detail on US calculations during the period leading up to the strike. Once informed of the Israeli intelligence, Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser, directed an interagency deputies committee to develop policy options. The committee’s members included Elliott Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser; James Jeffrey, a top Middle East specialist at the State Department, who was later the deputy national-security adviser; Eric Edelman, a senior aide to Gates who had previously served as the Ambassador to Turkey; and Eliot Cohen, who was counselor to the State Department under Condoleezza Rice. The main issue facing the committee was whether the US should bomb the reactor, or give a green light to Israel to do it. In the end the Bush administration demurred, arguing weakly for a diplomatic approach.
- After the attack, the issue for the US shifted. The Bush administration was making progress, albeit slowly, on agreements reached with North Korea on a staged disabling and dismantlement of Yongbyon. The Syrian collaboration was a huge wrench in the machinery, and produced intense debate about whether the North Korean declaration and admissions with respect to proliferation activity were accurate or adequate to move forward; we revisit this period in a subsequent post on Chris Hill’s new memoir which discusses his concerns that the agreement would unravel. Some argue it did as the US moved the goalposts, but it appears that Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August was the real death-knell of the Six Party Talks.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Bruce Bechtol’s work on this issue, as he has been one of the most consistent in emphasizing the Iran-Syria-North Korea connections. His 2009 overview in Comparative Strategy can be found here; a more recent 2013 interview on chemical weapons at Radio Free Asia can be found here.