Syria Joins the Axis of Evil

By JOHN R. BOLTON

September 25, 2007; Wall Street Journal -Page A19

 

The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program are set to resume on Sept. 27 in Beijing. Since the last session, a raft of "working group" meetings and Democratic People's Republic of Korea propaganda events have purportedly shown "progress" in implementing the Feb. 13 agreement to eliminate the North's nuclear capabilities. On Oct. 2, South Korean President Roh Muh-hyun will travel to Pyongyang to embrace Kim Jong Il. Mr. Roh hopes to boost political allies in a close presidential race against opponents of his appeasement policies.

 

But this entire diplomatic minuet has been reduced almost to insignificance by news from an unexpected place: the Middle East. A dramatic and apparently successful night-time Israeli air attack on Syria, whose details remain extraordinarily closely held, has increased the stakes. North Korea immediately condemned the raid, an action that raises this question: What is it about a raid in Syria that got Kim Jong Il's attention?

 

Israel's specific target is less important than the fact that with its objection to the raid, North Korea may have tipped its hand. Pyongyang's interest in the raid may be evidence of secret nuclear cooperation between the regime and Syria. There is much still unknown about a potential North Korea project in Syria, such as whether it was a direct sale of technology or equipment to the Syrians, a stand-alone facility or some sort of joint venture. In any case, the threat to Israel of such a project would be acute, perhaps existential -- which is why it would risk all-out regional war to strike pre-emptively.

 

Outsourcing strategic programs is nothing new for North Korea. For years, Pyongyang has been an aggressive proliferator of ballistic-missile technology, especially to the Middle East. In 1998, North Korea conducted a successful Taepo Dong missile launch and shortly thereafter gained an enormous propaganda boost by announcing a moratorium on launch-testing from its territory. But it didn't halt missile development and benefited greatly from Iran's ballistic missile program. Sharing data made eminent sense since both countries used the same basic Scud technology. Having successfully worked this shell game in ballistic missiles, it should come as no surprise that North Korea would try it again in the nuclear field.

 

Iran's increasing hegemony over Syria makes Syrian-North Korean cooperation in nuclear matters unlikely without its consent. Although Iran's involvement here is murky, its incentive to conceal its own nuclear program raises the possibility of a three-way deal. Most chillingly, the United States and Israel must now ask whether the Iranian and North Korean nuclear challenges can be resolved in isolation from one another.

 

Until more details become public, debate over the full extent of Syrian-North Korean cooperation will continue. What the Israeli attack highlights, however -- even if it does not prove conclusively for now -- is that North Korea is a global threat.

 

If the North is engaging in nuclear cooperation with Syria, the Feb. 13 agreement should be terminated. How much more evidence of mendacity do we need before we wake up? In fact, the Feb. 13 agreement is now merely a slogan. Its deadlines and its "actions for actions" mantra have disappeared, lost in a "process" of endless meetings and working groups. This "process" is inherently favorable to Kim Jong Il because it enables the North's legendary ability to trade the same obligation multiple times for tangible rewards, whether or not it performs.

 

Even if we "only" have evidence of continued North Korean ballistic missile cooperation with Syria, that alone should keep the North on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Syria -- and its senior partner, Iran -- are both long-time denizens of that same list of state sponsors of terrorism. Can we really delist North Korea when it partners with other terrorist states in the most destructive technologies?

 

Moreover, where are Syria's ballistic missiles -- and its weapons of mass destruction -- aimed? With American forces at risk in Iraq, no increase in the threats they face is acceptable, especially given Syria's record on Iraq to date. Syria remains at war with Israel and with Lebanon's Cedar Revolution. No one concerned about Israel's security or Lebanon's democracy should countenance giving North Korea a pass on the terrorism issue.

 

If the evidence is uncertain or mixed, the State Department will, unfortunately, desperately cling to "the process." If so, to protect the U.S. from the national security risk and international humiliation of another Pyongyang diplomatic triumph, we must insist on real dismantling of the North's nuclear program and a broad, deep and lasting verification mechanism. Moreover, what was once a subsidiary verification issue -- North Korean outsourcing off the Peninsula -- now assumes critical importance.

 

When will real verification experts from across our government finally receive a significant role? As one verifier said recently, "we'll know what's really going on when U.S. physicists start talking to [North Korean] physicists." State's diplomats should welcome this assistance, although traditionally they view the arrival of verifiers into arms control negotiations the same way Al Capone saw Elliot Ness and "The Untouchables." Of course, beyond negotiations, we need the concrete verification itself, which is barely a mirage in the six-party talks.

 

Developments in Syria should have brought the administration up short. Instead, the State Department has accelerated its efforts to declare "success," a deeply troubling and dangerous sign. This reflects a cultural problem at State, where "zeal for the deal" too often trumps the substance of the deal itself.

 

President Bush stands at a dispositive point regarding his personal legacy on North Korea. Until now, one could say with a straight face, if not entirely accurately, that implementing the Feb. 13 agreement was the State Department's responsibility. No longer. The Israeli strike and the possible Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation associated with it have presidential consequences. Further concessions to the North can now be laid only at the White House door, just as only the president can bring a tougher, more realistic attitude to the issue. That would be a real legacy.

 

Mr. Bolton is senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defeating America at the U.N. and Abroad," forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

 

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