The Bush administration is expected to tell US lawmakers it believes North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium, a US official said on Wednesday.
The White House has said little about the possibility of such cooperation between the two since Israel conducted a mysterious September 6 air strike on Syria that media reports said targeted a nuclear site being built with Pyongyang’s help.
“The sense is that the Syrians, with the help of the North Koreans, were attempting to build an undeclared facility that could indeed produce plutonium,” said the official, who spoke on condition he not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, of the congressional briefings’ likely content.
The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal reported the information on Wednesday.
The US official did not explicitly tie the closed-door briefings to the Israeli strike but hinted at that by saying: “If an undeclared reactor in dangerous hands were put out of commission before it was operational, that’s a good thing.”
Another US official who declined to be identified said the intelligence that will be presented to lawmakers would include “some pretty compelling before and after (aerial) pictures of the site.”
The presentation on Thursday is expected to include still photographs taken from videotape recorded inside the Syrian facility, the official said, adding the intelligence was expected to show that Syria was building a nuclear reactor complex much like the North Korean nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon.
At UN headquarters in New York, Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari told reporters: “There was no Syria-North Korea cooperation whatsoever in Syria. We deny these rumours.”
While a handful of lawmakers were briefed on the issue last year, the decision to widen the circle comes as Washington appears closer to a deal for North Korea to provide an overdue declaration of its nuclear programmes.
Once the poor, communist state has produced the declaration, the US is expected to ease sanctions on Pyongyang that flow from its presence on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and the US Trading With the Enemy Act.
Analysts believe Thursday’s briefings aim to persuade members of Congress that easing the sanctions is justified.
There is scepticism, especially among the administration’s Republican allies in Congress, that relaxing the sanctions is warranted and there are concerns North Korea will not produce the “complete and correct” declaration of its nuclear programmes it has promised under a multilateral agreement.