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Samore: A Syria-North Korea Nuclear Relationship?

Authors: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 19, 2007

Gary Samore, an arms control official in the Clinton National Security Council and CFR’s director of studies, says it remains a mystery whether Syria was working with North Korea to receive nuclear technology. He adds, however, that it would make sense that Syria would be interested to develop some kind of deterrent, given that its neighbor, Israel, is said to have nuclear weapons. “Syria has always been an interesting case,” Samore says, “because you would think a country in that position, faced with an enemy that has both conventional and nuclear superiority, would want to develop a nuclear option. That would make a lot of sense.”

In the last week there has been considerable speculation about an Israeli air incursion into Syria near the Syrian-Turkish border. There have been some reports the Israelis were trying to knock out a North Korean supplied nuclear facility. The North Koreans and the Syrians have both denied this. Do you have a guess on what happened?

I know the Israelis have been concerned for some time that Syria might be receiving nuclear assistance from North Korea. In particular, I think the Israelis were worried that North Korea was sharing centrifuge systems with Syria, but I haven’t seen the evidence for that, so it’s hard for me to judge whether that’s a solid concern or not. In any event, it seems unlikely that the Syrian program would have been very advanced. Nonetheless, if Israel thought that there was a real risk that the Syrians were beginning to dabble in centrifuge technology, you could understand why they would try to destroy that at a very early stage.

You would think the Syrians would go to the Iranians for help on centrifuge technology.

They might have been going to both. And there’s always been speculation that A. Q. Khan [the prominent Pakistani scientist and so-called “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear program, who sold nuclear technology to third parties] who of course marketed his services throughout the Middle East, might have approached the Syrians as well. Nobody really knows whether they took advantage of that offer.

Do the North Koreans really have enough left over P-1 centrifuges, provided by Khan, that they would want to sell?

The Pakistani government has acknowledged that A.Q. Khan provided a small number, less than two dozen, of these P-1 centrifuges to North Korea. So in theory, if the North Koreans wanted to sell or barter that technology to Syria, they could certainly do that.

North Korea and Syria both deny the nuclear deal, but Syria has, despite announcing the Israeli raid, never said what actually happened.

Syria has always been an interesting case, because you would think a country in that position, faced with an enemy that has both conventional and nuclear superiority, would want to develop a nuclear option. That would make a lot of sense. But up to now the Syrians seem to have been content with a chemical and biological capability, which they would use as a deterrent against Israel. And it’s always been curious that the Syrians have never, as far as we know, developed a nuclear weapons program, unlike many other Arab countries: Egypt, Libya, and so forth.

The latest round of the Six-Party Talks [North Korea, South Korea, United States, China, Russia and Japan] in Beijing was supposed to have been held today, but Beijing announced a postponement and nobody really knows why. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Well three different explanations have been offered. One is that the Chinese wanted to avoid a confrontation between the United States and North Korea over this Syrian business and so they decided to postpone the meeting and let tempers cool before they went ahead with it. A second theory I heard was that the technical experts really haven’t reached agreement yet on what steps would be required to disable North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

"Syria has always been an interesting case, because you would think a country in that position, faced with an enemy that has both conventional and nuclear superiority, would want to develop a nuclear option. That would make a lot of sense."

As I’m sure you know, a team of experts from the United States, Russia, and China visited the North Korean nuclear center last week in order to review the proposals that North Korea had made. I haven’t heard in detail what the North Koreans had proposed, or whether or not it was acceptable to the weapons inspections committee.

And they’re supposed to announce everything they have in the nuclear field?

They’re supposed to declare everything they have in the nuclear field, and they’re supposed to disable their existing nuclear facilities. This technical trip last week was to go over the actual steps and measures that would be required. One theory is that there isn’t agreement yet on these technical measures, and the Chinese didn’t want to have the meeting until they could announce that the experts had reached agreement on these technical steps.

The third theory, which is my favorite, is that the North Koreans have asked to postpone the meeting because they haven’t received the shipment of heavy fuel oil that they were expecting from the Chinese.

That’s interesting. They were supposed to receive the oil last week?

I gather there’s just been a technical glitch in the shipment of this second load of heavy fuel oil from China to North Korea, and the North Koreans don’t like to do anything on credit; they like to be paid up front. So they were just basically saying, “We’re not going to come to the table until we actually have our hands on that oil.”

You’ve been rather bearish, I think, on how far this Six-Party agreement, reached in February, can go, beyond closing down the Yongbyon facility. Why is that? Are you still bearish, or are you a little more optimistic?

There’s nothing in the agreement that talks about destroying their nuclear weapons, but certainly Chris Hill interprets the agreement to mean that the North Koreans will eliminate all of their nuclear weapons capabilities. I think that part of the agreement is extremely unlikely to be achieved during the rest of this administration and I think well into the next administration.

I think the U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has certainly made some progress. He worked out an agreement in principle with the North Koreans that they will declare and dissemble by the end of this year. In exchange the United States would take North Korea off of the list of countries that sponsor terrorism and lift some economic sanctions. So I think that’s a good sign, a step forward. Now the question is whether that can really be implemented, and I think there still remain some very significant obstacles, particularly in the declaration area, because the North Koreans, according to press reports, will acknowledge some kind of secret enrichment program and they will admit that they were out trying to buy special components. But whatever they declare is bound not to be taken at face value, and if they declare something that’s inconsistent with independent information the United States has, then we’ll get into a process of questions and answers, requests for interviews, looking at documents and visiting facilities, which I think could be very difficult to resolve.

 And what about the atomic bombs they are supposed to have? We don’t know how many bombs they are keeping do we?

We don’t. I think we can make a pretty good estimate about the amount of plutonium that they might have produced and then, based on that, we can approximate how many nuclear weapons they could have. But you’re right: we don’t know how many they have, and if something like that is included in the North Korean declaration, there will naturally be questions about whether they fully declared all the plutonium they were holding.

They are not obliged under that agreement to destroy their nuclear weapons, are they?

There’s nothing in the agreement that talks about destroying their nuclear weapons, but certainly Chris Hill interprets the agreement to mean that the North Koreans will eliminate all of their nuclear weapons capabilities. I think that part of the agreement is extremely unlikely to be achieved during the rest of this administration and I think well into the next administration. I don’t think the North Koreans are likely to give up their existing nuclear weapons. Although I do think they might agree to disable their old facilities, which may have actually come to the end of their useful operational life, and they may be willing to make a declaration about their secret enrichment program if the price is right.

The North Koreans may calculate that the Bush administration in the last year and a half of its term will be willing to make some pretty significant concessions in order to make progress on the nuclear issue.

Now the South Korean president is due to arrive in North Korea in early October, for the second summit between the two countries, which are still in a technical state of war. They’re talking about a possible peace treaty. Do you think they’re about to have a peace treaty without the United States signing on?

I think the issue of peace treaty is really one of sequence. The North Koreans say that they can’t give up their nuclear weapons until “peace” is established on the Korean peninsula. The problem with that approach is that the North Koreans can delay signing a peace treaty for years and years. There are a number of complicated issues here.

The United States argues that the North Koreans should give up their nuclear weapons first, and then there will be peace on the Korean peninsula. Apparently we’re prepared to begin negotiations for a peace treaty as we had during the Clinton administration, which didn’t get very far.

You were involved in nuclear discussions with the North Koreans in the Clinton administration. Could you describe those talks?

 There were many rounds of discussions. They were called “Four Party Talks”—the United States, China, South Korea and North Korea—and the talks never proceeded. One of the big sticking points was that the North Koreans always refused to sign a peace treaty with South Korea, because they said they weren’t prepared to recognize South Korea. Now if there’s been a change in that North Korean attitude, it would be very significant.

It would be very interesting, and I think that’s something the United States should favor, because the more we can reduce hostility on the Korean peninsula, the more we can argue that North Korea doesn’t need to have a nuclear deterrent. But the big question for the South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, and his visit to North Korea, is the extent to which he links the nuclear issue to the big economic package of development assistance that apparently South Korea is prepared to offer to the North. The concern in Washington is that unless there’s a clear link in conditionality between this economic package and progress on the nuclear issue, it will undercut any incentive the North has to take further steps on the nuclear issue.

Now you had an op-ed piece in a South Korean paper after the trip you made to Beijing, in which you said that China was feeling left out because of the U.S.-North Korean dialogue. Is that still the case, do you think?

I think it’s still the case. I think the Chinese on the one hand are happy that a crisis has been avoided and progress is being made to resolve the nuclear issue, but I think, on the other, they are missing their essential place in the negotiations, and if these negotiations stumble at some point, which is actually quite likely, I think the Chinese may once again find themselves in the central role of mediating disputes.

That’s interesting, because you point out in your article that the Chinese have for years been urging the United States to get more involved with North Korea.

That’s correct.

 I haven’t seen anything from any of the Democratic Party candidates about North Korea, have you?

No, and I think it’s because Bush is essentially doing what the Democrats have long advocated. I mean, in essence this current Bush strategy is the Clinton strategy. From that standpoint I think there is probably a lot more support among the Democrats for this strategy than there is among the Republican candidates. But the Republican candidates, I think, don’t see the point in pushing a fight with the Bush administration over its North Korea policy. I don’t think it’s a very important issue for the electorate, especially compared to Iraq.

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