Politics & Policy

Syrious Blow to Nonproliferation


Last week, the administration broke the deafening silence surrounding Israel’s strike against a Syrian nuclear reactor last fall. Media reports indicate that U.S. intelligence confirms that North Korea had been assisting Syria to build a plutonium-producing reactor. That is, until Israeli warplanes struck.

Given North Korea’s track record, it is not surprising that these two state sponsors of terrorism were collaborating. Pariah states seek each other out. North Korea has long cooperated with Iran on its missile program. North Korean troops even trained some of Robert Mugabe’s henchmen in Zimbabwe.

#ad#But particularly galling about these two cooperating is that it took place smack in the middle of the six-party talks, the diplomatic effort to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program. News reports indicate that this facility was visible by satellite since 2001. The six-party talks have been dragging on since August 2003. Ambassador Chris Hill, the U.S. lead negotiator on North Korea should feel a bit sheepish about his statements that, “Clearly, we cannot be reaching a nuclear agreement with North Korea if at the same time they’re proliferating. It is not acceptable.”

State Department officials are determined to keep negotiations continuing. With North Korea balking for months over their commitment to provide a complete picture of their nuclear programs, diplomats are fudging. Reports indicate North Korea will now only be required to “acknowledge” U.S. concerns over its proliferation and highly enriched uranium program, while declaring its plutonium program. In exchange, the U.S. will move to lift North Korea’s state sponsor of terrorism designation and sanctions related to the Trading with the Enemy Act.

With this new formula, State Department officials are saying that North Korea’s efforts to acquire a highly-enriched-uranium program and its record of proliferating are side issues — not worthy of holding up the larger deal on North Korea’s plutonium. Syria demonstrates the need to be engaged with the North Koreans, the thinking goes. But such logic is difficult to square with intelligence-community assessments. In February — well after the Syrian strike — the director of national intelligence told Congress that North Korea “continues to engage in both” a program for uranium enrichment and proliferation.

The Bush administration has consistently lowered the bar for the North Koreans. Just as the Six Party process gained steam in February 2007, it immediately hit snags related to North Korea’s counterfeiting of U.S currency. Pyongyang balked at U.S. Treasury sanctions placed on its favored bank in Macau. After months of stalemate, the State Department worked to skirt U.S. law, transferring millions of North Korea’s illicit funds through the Federal Reserve in New York back to Pyongyang. It rationalized that move, claiming that $25 million shouldn’t stand in the way of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program, and that North Korea’s counterfeiting of $100 bills would be otherwise addressed. A year later the Treasury reports that North Korean supernotes “continue to surface.”

Now, we face a similar tune on North Korea’s highly-enriched-uranium program. Why let what we think is a problem (uranium) get in the way of what we know is a problem (plutonium)? With that line of reasoning, the danger becomes the possibility that North Korea gets financial rewards and political concessions for one part of its nuclear program, only to confirm later that proliferation and highly enriched uranium efforts are ongoing.

Soon after details of the latest fudge on North Korea began to be criticized, administration talking points quickly began to stress “verification.” But on a trip to Pyongyang last week, billed as one to finalize Pyongyang’s declaration and hammer out verification issues, the State Department delegation included zero officials from its section charged with verification. Verification can’t just be a slogan — it has to be a practice. A likely scenario is that the North Koreans enter into a protracted debate over which verification measures it will submit to, continue to stall — collecting concessions — then restart the clock with a new administration.

U.S. credibility is suffering. Immediately after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006, the president stated, “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action.” The Syrian revelations, and the administration’s reaction to it, have shredded that policy. How likely is it that other proliferators will take such statements seriously?

– Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.) is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade.

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