WASHINGTON (AFP) — Divisions have appeared again in US President George W. Bush's administration over a North Korean nuclear disarmament deal amid leaked US intelligence citing alleged atomic links between the Stalinist state and Syria.
As North Korea moves to declare and disable its nuclear weapons program under a six-party deal, reports in the New York Times and Washington Post have suggested Pyongyang may be helping US arch rival Syria build a nuclear weapons facility.
The reports, citing unnamed sources, were based on intelligence information supposedly from Israel's flyover and apparent raid last week on targets inside Syria.
The information could have been provided by hawks within the Bush administration who are against the rapidly-progressing deal with North Korea, some experts said.
They questioned the timing of the reports, coming just ahead of key six-party talks among the United States, China, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia, where Pyongyang is widely expected to agree to declare and disable its nuclear arsenal by the end of 2007.
"There is supposed to be an effort by some officials to torpedo the North Korea nuclear deal by portraying North Korea as a 'proliferator,'" said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons expert, who was once a key advisor to Congress.
He likened the reports to those that surfaced in the run up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 during which officials provided apparently incorrect intelligence information about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Washington for decades has accused North Korea, which carried out a nuclear weapons test in October 2006, of WMD proliferation. US officials have charged Syria with bankrolling terrorism groups in the Middle East.
"The potential nexus between WMD and terrorism is the biggest threat to the security of the US and its allies," said the conservative opinion page of the Wall Street Journal on Friday, seeking a freeze of the Korean nuclear deal.
"If North Korea is moving its nuclear facilities to Syria -- or 'merely' proliferating -- it would undermine everything at the heart of that (six-party aid-for-disarmament) agreement, as well as cross a long-stated American red line that Pyongyang not proliferate," the newspaper said.
"Even if it is unsure of the full implications of the intelligence, the administration has an obligation not to proceed with a nuclear deal until Pyongyang and Damascus come clean," it said.
State Department officials have refused to comment directly on the intelligence reports, except to say that Washington had always been concerned over North Korea's proliferation activities which had been a critical component of the six-party talks that began in 2003.
"The reason we have a six-party process and the reason we have, you know, 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 said.
He likened the reports as "an important reminder of the need to accelerate the process that we're already engaged in and to push for what we've already agreed to do, which is to achieve de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
The evidence of the North Korea-Syrian links include satellite imagery that led some US officials to believe the Syrian facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons, the Washington Post said.
Israel reconnaissance flights over Syria took pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea, The New York Times said.
Robert Einhorn, a former top non-proliferation official in the State Department, said he was aware of North Korean and Syrian cooperation in the missile area when he was in the government.
"We were aware of that cooperation during the 1990s but since I left government in 2001, I don't know what kind of cooperation may be taking place," he said.
The Syrian nuclear program has been around for 40 years, Cirincione said.
"It is a basic research program built around a tiny 30 kilowatt reactor that produced a few isotopes and neutrons. It is no where near a program for nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel," he said.
Over a dozen countries have helped Syria develop its nuclear program, including Belgium, Germany, Russia, China and even the United States, by way of training of scientists, he said.
"If North Korea gave them anything short of nuclear weapons, it's of little consequence," Cirincione said.
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