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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
A scarcely noted imagery brief posted by the Institute for Science and International Security on June 30 carried this ominous report: “The destroyed reactor site in Syria is now under the control of ISIL/Daesh, which is apparently dismantling and possibly conducting excavation activities at the site. Its intentions are unknown. There is no new information about Syria’s supply of uranium that would have been used in the destroyed reactor, although it is not believed to be at the reactor site or in the hands of ISIL/Daesh. New information adds support that Syria intended to build a plant to separate plutonium from the reactor’s irradiated fuel.” (The reactor site is located in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria where ISIL fighters reportedly massacred 900 members of the Al-Shaitat tribe in 2014 when they resisted ISIL occupation of the area.)
If it were not for ‘Operation Orchard’ … ISIL fighters could well be armed today with atomic weaponry rather than just captured U.S. tanks and Kalashnikov rifles
Given the furious Washington debate over whether the Iran nuclear deal will ultimately hand the bomb to the mullahs in Tehran, one would expect that the news that a North Korean-built reactor site in the Syrian desert has fallen into ISIL’s hands would draw some attention. It would seem the fact that Israeli commandos reportedly confirmed that the site once contained nuclear materials would cause even greater alarm. If it were not for “Operation Orchard” – the Israeli air strike conducted on the Al Kibar reactor on September 6, 2007 – ISIL fighters could well be armed today with atomic weaponry rather than just captured U.S. tanks and Kalashnikov rifles.
The Washington Post reported immediately after the air strike, on September 13, 2007, that “North Korea may be cooperating with Syria on some sort of nuclear facility in Syria, according to new intelligence the United States has gathered over the past six months, sources said. The evidence, said to come primarily from Israel, includes dramatic satellite imagery that led some U.S. officials to believe that the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons.” The Associated Press quoted Andrew Semmel, then acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, from Rome on September 16, 2007 as stating that North Koreans were in Syria and that Damascus may have had contacts with “secret suppliers” to obtain nuclear equipment. “There are indicators that they do have something going on there,” he said.
The Sunday Times, “citing informed sources in Washington and Jerusalem,” reported on September 23, 2007 that “Israeli commandos seized nuclear material of North Korean origin during a daring raid on a secret military site in Syria before Israel bombed it this month … They confirmed that samples taken from Syria for testing had been identified as North Korean. This raised fears that Syria might have joined North Korea and Iran in seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.”
Japan’s NHK carried reporting on the North Korean connection on April 27, 2008, citing “unidentified South Korean intelligence officials” who claimed that “10 people whose remains were cremated and returned to Pyongyang in October had been helping with the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria. Some North Koreans probably survived the air attack.” NHK further noted that “the U.S. government last week accused North Korea of helping Syria build a secret nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium.”
Further details were supplied by Hans Ruhle, former chief of staff of the German Defense Ministry, in an article published by the Swiss Daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung on March 19, 2009. Ruhle claimed that Iran was financing the Syria reactor and that “Israel estimates that Iran had paid North Korea between $1 billion and $2 billion for the project.” Without identifying sources, he further noted that U.S. intelligence had detected North Korean ship deliveries of construction supplies to Syria that started in 2002, and that the construction was spotted by American satellites in 2003. He also wrote that “the analysis was conclusive that it was a North Korean-type reactor, a gas graphite model” and that just before the Israeli operation, a North Korean ship was intercepted en route to Syria with nuclear fuel rods
The fact that a clone facility of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor had been destroyed in the Syrian desert raised alarm bells about the entire six-party negotiating process with North Korea. Then U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) wanted answers from the Bush Administration’s chief North Korean nuclear negotiator, Ambassador Christopher Hill. Pyongyang’s covert activity in assisting a then-fellow state sponsor of terrorism in attempting to acquire a nuclear device implied a complete lack of trustworthiness in talks on North Korea’s own denuclearization.
The Washington Post, however, reported on September 15, 2007, that any North Korean nuclear connection to Syria would not preclude further negotiations with Pyongyang on nuclear issues: Reports that North Korea may be assisting Syria with a possible nuclear program will not derail efforts to implement a deal to end North Korea’s nuclear programs, the chief U.S. negotiator said yesterday, arguing that the reports emphasized the need to complete the agreement. “The reason we have the six-party process, and the reason we have put together a number of pretty serious countries in this process, is to make sure that the North Koreans get out of the nuclear business,” Hill, then-assistant secretary of state, told reporters yesterday, in advance of a new round of talks next week in Beijing. “At the end of all this, we would expect to have a pretty clear idea of, you know, whether they have engaged in proliferation in other countries.”
The conversations that followed with Congressional leaders bore an unseemly resemblance to Dorothy’s exchanges with the wonderful Wizard of Oz. “Pay no attention to the Syrian reactor behind the curtain,” Ambassador Hill seemed to be saying to an increasingly frustrated Ros-Lehtinen, “that’s a side show compared to the important negotiations we are conducting. Just wait until North Korea blows up the Yongbyon reactor’s cooling tower.” North Korea did topple the tower in a highly publicized event carried by CNN Cable News in June 2008. The destruction of the cooling tower in no way, however, prevented North Korea from carrying out second and third nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013. Nor did it stop North Korea from producing, according to a Chinese estimate that appeared in an April 27 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, 20 nuclear warheads “plus the capacity to have double that number by next year.” The cooling tower drama thus appeared to be just one more of the Kim family’s smoke-and-mirrors techniques to momentarily pacify impatient U.S. negotiators.
With ISIL now occupying the Al Kibar former reactor site, one can imagine one of their jihadist leaders lamenting, as did the general in the Hollywood film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as follows: “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.” Thanks to North Korea, they very nearly did.