National Security

U.S. accuses North Korea, Syria of constructing nuclear reactor

A screen capture from a U.S. intelligence video briefing about North Korea's alleged nuclear assistance to Syria.
A screen capture from a U.S. intelligence video briefing about North Korea's alleged nuclear assistance to Syria.

WASHINGTON — The United States on Thursday accused North Korea of helping Syria to secretly build a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and released top-secret photographic intelligence that U.S. officials called conclusive proof of the allegation.

The Bush administration unveiled the ground-level photographs and spy satellite pictures seven months after Israeli aircraft bombed the suspected reactor, which was in a remote canyon near the town of al Kibar in Syria's eastern Dayr az Zawr Province.

"We are convinced ... that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities," said a White House statement. "We have good reason to believe that reactor ... was not intended for peaceful purposes."

President Bush authorized the extraordinary disclosure of intelligence in what a senior administration official called an effort to encourage North Korea to fully disclose its nuclear activities in international talks on ending its nuclear weapons program.

The official, who requested anonymity as a condition of a briefing given to journalists, said the administration also hoped that the presentation would persuade more countries to enforce international sanctions imposed on Iran for defying U.N. demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which can be used to produce weapons.

"The construction of this reactor was a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the region and the world," the White House said. "This underscores that the international community is right to be very concerned about the nuclear activities of Iran and the risks those activities pose to the stability of the Middle East."

The Bush administration remains committed to the so-called six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear program, the White House said. The talks include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

The senior administration official said that the Bush administration consulted Israel on options for dealing with the suspect reactor, including using diplomacy backed by the threat of force to persuade Syria to shut down the project.

"Israel concluded a Syrian nuclear capability to be an existential threat to the state of Israel. Israel made its own decision (to bomb the site) without any green light from us," the official said. "None was asked for. None was given."

Since the Sept. 6 Israeli airstrike, Syria has repeatedly denied news reports that a nuclear facility built with North Korean assistance had been the target.

"This is fantasy," Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha told CNN after he received the briefing at the State Department. "This will be a major embarrassment to the U.S. administration for a second time: They lied about Iraqi WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), and they think they can do it again."

U.S. officials briefed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna, Austria, which Syria has refused permission to inspect the site.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials conceded Thursday in a briefing for journalists that followed presentations to select members of Congress that they lacked "clinical evidence" that Syria has an active nuclear weapons program.

One critical missing piece of proof is evidence of a reprocessing plant that Syria would need to extract plutonium from used uranium fuel rods, which would have powered the suspect reactor but were never loaded, they said.

They insisted, however, that the facility had no other purpose but to produce plutonium for warheads, saying that the intelligence showed that the suspect reactor was a copy of a 1950s British design that North Korea built at Pyongyang to supply plutonium for its small nuclear arsenal.

Moreover, senior U.S. intelligence officials said, there were no electrical transmission lines leading from the site near the Euphrates River, which ruled out the possibility that the facility was a power generating station. The design also was "ill-suited" for research, they added.

Construction of the facility began in summer 2001 and was completed in August, and it "was weeks and probably months" away from going on line, said one senior U.S. intelligence official. "We had to assume they could throw the switch at any time."

The presentation comprised photographs, satellite pictures and computerized images of what senior U.S. intelligence officials said was the exterior and interior of the suspected reactor, as well as a system for carrying cooling water from the river.

They refused to say how the United States acquired the highly detailed ground-level photographs last year, but said that windows, doors and other openings that the photos depicted matched those in pictures taken by U.S. spy satellites.

Shots of the purported Syrian facility set next to pictures of the Yongbyon reactor also appeared to show distinct similarities, including the same control rod configurations in the tops of the reactor vessels.

The presentation included a photograph of a senior North Korean scientist from Yongbyon standing with a senior Syrian nuclear official in front of a car bearing a Syrian license plate. The North Koreans were driven by "cash," said one senior intelligence official.

A document distributed as part of the presentation said that senior North Koreans from Yongbyon began visiting Syria before construction of the facility began and that Pyongyang is known to have procured nuclear-related equipment for Damascus in 2002.

"North Korean nuclear officials were located in the region of the reactor both early and late in 2007," the document said. "Our information shows that North Korean advisors also probably assisted with damage assessment efforts after the reactor was destroyed."

The senior intelligence officials said the United States became aware in 2001 that Syria and North Korea were cooperating on nuclear activities, but their cooperation on the al Kibar site wasn't confirmed until last year.

A senior State Department official said there was a debate in the administration over whether to release the intelligence.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was among those opposing the release, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal administration disputes. "I don't think she saw the value of it" in pushing diplomacy to end North Korea's nuclear programs or advancing U.S. goals in the Middle East, he said.

Vice President Dick Cheney, many U.S. government officials dealing with nonproliferation and the U.S. intelligence community reportedly favored releasing the materials. The CIA, in particular, had come under criticism from key congressional staffers for withholding the material.

Members of Congress who received the briefing said they were convinced that the purported reactor posed a threat to regional stability.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., said the Bush administration shouldn't lift U.S. sanctions on North Korea as part of a deal on ending its nuclear program until the United States confirms that Pyongyang "is no longer in the nuclear proliferation business."

Several lawmakers expressed anger that the Bush administration hadn't briefed members of Congress on the issue sooner.

"It happened eight months later that what it should have been," complained Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. "The relationship that we need to get international issues done, foreign policy issues done, a trusting environment between the administration and Congress, does not exist."

The senior administration official, however, said that 22 key lawmakers had been briefed last September and October.

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this story.)