Washington - Israel is considering disclosing classified information about alleged nuclear ties between North Korea and Syria due to concern that Washington may downplay the issue as it pursues closer ties with Pyongyang.
Israeli sources say that Jerusalem holds information implicating North Korea in a nascent Syrian nuclear program, which was reportedly the target of an Israeli air strike this past September.
Until now, Jerusalem has maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding the attack, but Israel is reluctantly considering opening up because of Washington’s steps toward rapprochement with Pyongyang. Israel officials and American lawmakers believe that disclosing information about the attack may force Washington to maintain a firm line on North Korean nuclear proliferation.
“Israel has concerns about North Korea because of its proliferation activity, but Israel doesn’t want to get into a conflict over this issue or to take any action which could be viewed as opposing a policy led by Condoleezza Rice,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
To date, authoritative information about Israel’s September 6, 2007, attack has been scarce. Following the air strike, the Israeli government avoided making any public statements on the incident, and even the country’s famously talkative Cabinet members stayed mum on the topic.
But the international media, which is not obliged to observe Israel’s military censorship laws, was full of information about the attack, including “before and after” satellite images of the targeted site. The reports provide a fairly detailed account of the attack, describing its target as a partially built nuclear site being constructed using North Korean know-how.
The issue re-emerged April 4, when Israeli media reported a dispute among policymakers in Jerusalem about providing official information regarding the attack. According to front-page reports in a number of leading Israeli newspapers, the information was expected to be revealed in Washington during an April 17 briefing held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
A spokeswoman for the committee, however, said this week that no hearing had been scheduled on issues relating to Syria, Israel or North Korea. A representative for the House Intelligence Committee also made clear that there were no plans to discuss the issue.
A congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity due to what was described as “the extreme sensitivity of the issue,” told the Forward that administration officials would be giving closed-door briefings to several members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the near future. The briefings, according to the congressional aide, will deal with Israel’s attack on Syria and with North Korea’s involvement in an alleged Syrian nuclear program.
Israeli officials refused to discuss the matter, citing the standing policy of not commenting on any aspect of the attack. Officials did confirm, however, that two senior advisers to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were in Washington in early April holding discussions with administration officials. According to Israeli press reports, these discussions also touched on the issue of disclosing information about the September 6 air strike.
Meanwhile, talks between the United States and North Korea reached a critical point this past week. Christopher Hill, the administration’s point man for negotiations with Pyongyang, met April 8 in Singapore with his North Korean counterpart in an attempt to overcome the current impasse, which stems from Pyongyang’s refusal to disclose all its nuclear activity within the country and from its proliferation of nuclear technology to other countries.
A full disclosure in writing is a condition set by Washington for removing North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, a move that would mark the beginning of North Korea being accepted back into the international community. A possible compromise being discussed is having North Korea provide only a declaration acknowledging American findings on these issues.
Republican lawmakers have insisted that the Bush administration not drop North Korea from the list of terrorism sponsors before Pyongyang gives a full account of its proliferation activity.
“Pyongyang continues to transfer missile technology to nations of concern in South Asia and the Middle East,” a group of Republican lawmakers wrote in a March 16 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “Moreover, during last year’s July 4 missile launch by North Korea, the international press reported the presence of Iranian observers.”
The group, led by Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a strong supporter of Israel, argued that it is premature to remove North Korea from the list because of its supplying of nuclear technology to other countries, which the letters’ authors view as an “even greater threat to American security.”
Lawmakers also added to this year’s Intelligence Authorization Act a stipulation requiring the director of national intelligence to provide Congress with a quarterly report on the nuclear intentions of Iran and North Korea, although the legislation does allow the administration to keep the report classified and allow only committee members and staffers with security clearance to read it. Congressional sources would not say if the planned briefings by the administration are in response to this legislation.
Israel, according to press reports, is concerned mainly about alleged North Korean involvement in developing Iran’s nuclear program. In the talks held by Olmert’s advisers in Washington this month, the Israelis stressed the need to demand that North Korea come clean regarding its nuclear ties with Iran as part of any grand deal being negotiated by the United States, according to reports confirmed by Israeli sources in Jerusalem.
A congressional source, however, told the Forward that the need to disclose details of the Israeli attack on Syria had not been raised by either the administration or Jerusalem.
“It is not clear that it is needed in order to make the case against North Korea’s proliferation record,” the congressional source said.
This story "Israel May Reveal Details of Attack on Alleged Syrian Nuclear Program" was written by Nathan Guttman.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.