The first reports that North Korea may be helping Syria develop a nuclear-weapons program surfaced last week in "The New York Times" and the "The Washington Post."
In a statement issued today, the North Korean Foreign Ministry strongly denied the accusations, suggesting they were a fabrication by U.S. hard-liners intended to block progress in Pyongyang's relations with Washington.
The statement was the first by Pyongyang on the issue since a secretive Israeli air raid earlier this month on unknown Syrian targets raised suspicions.
History Of North Korean-Syrian Cooperation
Israel has maintained an official silence over the September 6 incident. Syria says its air-defense systems fired on Israeli warplanes that had dropped munitions deep inside its territory. Media have speculated that Israel bombed a suspected nuclear facility in its northern neighbor being built with the help of North Korea.
Speculation aside, Damascus and Pyongyang have unusually warm relations, including a history of military and technological cooperation. "Syria is one of only two countries left on Earth -- the other being Cuba -- which recognize only North Korea as the true Korea and don't have relations with the South," says Aidan Foster-Carter, an expert on North Korea at Britain's University of Leeds. "All military and other considerations aside, North Korea would very much like to keep it that way."
Suspicions that Pyongyang is helping Damascus in the nuclear field were fueled even further on September 14, when Andrew Semmel, a senior official for nuclear nonproliferation policy at the U.S. State Department, weighed in.
Semmel said Syria may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment. He did not identify those alleged suppliers, but he did say that North Koreans were in Syria and that he could not exclude that the network run by the disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan may have been involved.
Foster-Carter is unsure about those suspicions, but says military cooperation between North Korea and Syria is no secret. Among other things, he says there are intelligence reports that Pyongyang has sold missiles to Damascus.
"We know that both North Korea and Syria have chemical-weapons programs; I believe there is intelligence that suggests they've cooperated on that," Foster-Carter says. "That links to the missiles in the sense that even quite inaccurate missiles fired by [the Lebanese Shi'ite militia] Hizballah or indeed by Syria at Israel with a chemical warhead [is too horrible to contemplate.] But the nuke thing -- well, that is kind of surprising. And those who try to put a brave face on everything -- i.e., South Korea -- saying that the Syrians don't have nuclear storage facilities -- I wouldn't know about that."
Why Would Pyongyang Break Deal?
The suspicions that North Korea is aiding Syria follow unprecedented diplomatic progress on reeling back Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program.
Under a February deal, North Korea suspended operation of its Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil from South Korea. That deal came as part of six-nation talks also involving the United States. Those talks, which are expected to continue, were due to resume today but have been postponed.
All of that raises the question: why would North Korean leader Kim Jong Il choose, after moving his country toward nuclear cooperation with the international community, suddenly change tack and violate his pledge?
Foster-Carter says that Kim would "be pretty crazy, just when he seemed to be cooperative up to now on the six-party talks, everything's going well; we've had this group of scientists inspecting; the new six-party talks, although postponed, are expected pretty soon. Why would he do this now? Or, if you are of a conspiracy-theory frame of mind, of course, where did this story come from: who leaked it? There are of course people like John Bolton, the former U.S. representative to the UN, and other persons in the Bush administration before it turned to engagement who don't approve of the turn to engagement with North Korea in Washington."
North Korea's Foreign Ministry, in its statement today, said the country has upheld a pledge it made in October 2006, when it conducted its first-ever nuclear test, that it would be "a responsible nuclear-weapons state" and not transfer any nuclear material out of the country.
(with agency reports)