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North Korea and Syria: A Warning in the Desert

Six-Party Talks began in 2003, with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US teaming up to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons ambition. Talks continued on and off with isolated North Korea, as it inched forward with its own nuclear development and clandestine export of nuclear material. One example of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation emerged in 2007 when Israeli bombers destroyed a secretly built nuclear reactor in Syria. Since then, Syria has covered up any remaining traces. Gregory L. Schulte, former US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, argues that the international community should not only step up its efforts to interdict North Korea’s efforts to proliferate nuclear weapon technology, but also insist on the IAEA’s investigation of its role in the construction of the Syrian reactor and draw the world’s attention to its dangerous nuclear trafficking. – YaleGlobal

North Korea and Syria: A Warning in the Desert

Pyongyang’s covert sale of nuclear technology to Syria holds broader lesson
Gregory L. Schulte
YaleGlobal, 28 April 2010
Now you see it, now you don't: Syria covered up the site of North Korean built  nuclear reactor (top), after it was bombed by Israel

WASHINGTON: North Korea has dropped tantalizing hints about rejoining the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear program, having walked out of the talks in 2009. There is at least one catch: After its two nuclear tests, Pyongyang wants to rejoin as a nuclear-weapon state and not as a party that had committed to abandon its nuclear program. 

According to South Korean press, North Korea’s foreign ministry recently wrote that it is ready to “take part in international efforts on nuclear disarmament on an equal footing with other nuclear weapons states.” Perhaps miffed at being excluded from President Barack Obama’s recent nuclear security summit, North Korea reportedly proposes to “join forces with the international community in nuclear non-proliferation and safe storage of nuclear materials.” 

The recent sinking of a South Korean ship may also sink the Six-Party Talks, making moot both their purpose and the agenda. If the talks resume nonetheless, the United States and its diplomatic partners cannot accept North Korea’s desire to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state. However, the five countries – US, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China can – and should – accept North Korea’s suggestion that the talks address nonproliferation.

North Korea has a penchant to proliferate to earn a living, and warning about this proliferation lies buried in Syria’s desert. There, at a remote location near the Euphrates, North Korean technicians were helping Syria build a covert nuclear reactor until Israel warplanes bombed it in September 2007. 

North Korea reportedly proposes to “join forces with the international community in nuclear non-proliferation and safe storage of nuclear materials.”

This reactor, destroyed before it started operations, had no obvious civil applications. It was built in great secrecy and without the required notification to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Once destroyed by Israeli bombs, Syria quickly hid the remains from international scrutiny. Much of a neighboring hill was bulldozed over the reactor remains, and a new building erected on top. 

North Korean experts were reportedly involved in both construction and cover-up.

This gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor was strikingly similar to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyong, the same reactor which produced plutonium for Pyongyang’s small stockpile of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the external configuration looked much the same until the shape of the facility in Syria was disguised with a false roof and walls.

Much of this joint Syrian-North Korean venture – from source of reactor fuel to funding – remains shrouded in mystery as do the motives. In the case of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president since 2000, may have been seeking personal prestige, regional influence or a reinforced deterrent against Israel. North Korea, for its part, could have been seeking an offshore backup to its reactor at Yongbyong. More likely its leaders just wanted cash.

North Korea is an active trafficker in conventional weapons, missiles and associated technologies. The Syrian reactor provides a stark warning that Pyongyang is ready to extend its illicit marketing to nuclear technology.

Much of a joint
Syrian-North Korean venture – from source or reactor fuel to funding – remains shrouded in mystery
as do the motives.

In October 2006, after North Korea’s first nuclear test, President George W. Bush warned that North Korea’s transfer of nuclear weapons or material to states or non-state entities would be considered “a grave threat to the United States” and that the nation “would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.” Yet when the US became aware of North Korea’s nuclear cooperation with Syria, there were no consequence other than Israel’s destruction of the North Korean reactor in Syria. 

In the context of the Six-Party Talks, Syria’s illicit venture was seen more as an unwelcome distraction than as a dangerous development. The US chief negotiator at the time was satisfied with North Korea not denying its involvement and promising not to proliferate again. And while the IAEA launched an investigation of the covert reactor – an investigation now stymied by Syria’s refusal to cooperate – little was said in Vienna about the role of North Korea. The IAEA director general even removed North Korea from the agency’s agenda.

The world’s nonproliferation regime has been shaken by North Korea’s flagrant violations and by Iran’s determined pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities.[1]   A nuclear-armed Iran risks sparking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Middle East countries that might consider acquiring their own atomic arsenals generally lack the necessary bombmaking technologies, would look abroad for equipment, material, and technical assistance. North Korea has shown its availability.

To prevent further proliferation, North Korea’s activities need to be exposed, penalized, and disrupted. Three approaches should be pursued with those goals in mind:

To prevent further proliferation, North Korea’s activities
need to be exposed, penalized, and disrupted.

  • First, proliferation should be moved to the top of the agenda of renewed Six-Party Talks rather than being relegated to the bottom. Effective verification – two words detested by the North Koreans – must be a priority. Promises are not enough, particularly from a regime that has regularly dissembled about the scope of its nuclear activities. A better understanding of North Korea’s nuclear activities will not only thwart proliferation but also better position efforts to limit and ultimately roll back the nation’s nuclear program.

  • Second, the US and like-minded countries should encourage the IAEA to revitalize its investigation of Syria’s covert reactor. Convincing President Assad to cooperate will require some adept diplomacy backed by the threat of IAEA special inspections and, if Assad refuses, subsequent referral to the UN Security Council.  It is important to ensure that there are no other undeclared activities in Syria, to demonstrate that a country cannot stymie the IAEA by refusing to cooperate, and to protect the integrity of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Getting Damascus to “rat out” Pyongyang would expose the North Korean network, make future joint ventures easier to detect, and discourage other countries – whether in the Middle East or Far East – from embarking on similar projects.

The US should step up efforts to interdict North Korea’s illicit trafficking and encourage China and others to do the same.

  • Third, the US should step up its efforts to interdict North Korea’s illicit trafficking and encourage China and others to do the same. The Proliferation Security Initiative, endorsed a year ago by President Obama, needs to be re-energized and targeted on North Korea. It should renew high-level diplomatic efforts to secure participation by countries like China, Indonesia and Malaysia that lie on the maritime routes used by North Korean shipping. The initiative should also be expanded to include financial measures of the type that the US Treasury has used so effectively. Because China is a regular transshipment point for North Korean vessels, it is essential to bring Beijing into maritime and financial interdiction efforts.

If the Six-Party talks remain on hold, the United States should not sit pat. It should instead convene the parties without North Korea, restate international expectations that North Korea disarm, and develop a regional approach to detect and disrupt Pyongyang’s black market in weapons technology. The reactor in the Syrian desert may lie in rubble, but the world cannot ignore its warning of North Korea’s readiness to market the most dangerous of technologies.

Gregory L. Schulte was the US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2005 to 2009. He previously served three tours in the White House under two presidents and six years on the NATO International Staff, working on nuclear policy and the Balkans. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Defense University. This essay reflects his personal views.

1 For a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program and NATO’s role in containing a nuclear-armed Iran, see the author’s February 2010 essay for the Atlantic Council at For ways to strengthen the nonproliferation regime by strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency, see the author’s March 2010 Strategic Forum essay at  

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Comments on this Article

29 April 2010
"This reactor, destroyed before it started operations, had no obvious civil applications. It was built in great secrecy and without the required notification to the International Atomic Energy Agency"
Were the reactors (and the entire military nuclear program for that matter) of Israel, India and Pakistan done in ANY different way from the one in Syria? Do any of those have been REQUIRED to notify the IAEA? And WHO were the proliferators (specially on the Israeli military program)?
Have the IAEA asked for inspections in Israeli nuclear facilities for instance?
This is a JOKE!
It is frustrating the way the world works today
Most of the big organizations of our society be them for food aid and as in the IAEA’s case, are turning (or have turned) into instruments of domination
It is becoming increasingly clear that big nations with big money (and big guns) rule the UN and its agencies and the IAEA is not an exception.
Those that rule the planet (or are convinced this is the case) give their orders in the form of pressure and are always attended.
The IAEA should be a Sovran organization and not just a paw of the US.
Have the IAEA ever conducted inspections on the US nuclear arsenal?
Have the IAEA ever opposed the US development or upgrade of atomic weapons even in face of the non proliferation treaty, that you seem so eager to enforce for small to be dominated nations like Iran?
Have the IAEA ever pressed for inspections on the Israelis arsenal that everybody knows exist but the IAEA under the US command seems to be blind about?
Have the IAEA ever protected the interest of members to be able to accomplish what is their right under the NPT?
It is becoming more and more clear that the IAEA's role is to make nations of this world understand that if a world without nuclear weapons is not possible (because the US will never accept to dispose their instrument of monopoly), then the other only alternative to protect ones severity is to have atomic weapons themselves.
The biggest encouragement to date is the heavy hand and big nose of the US in IAEA’s internal affairs and worse, IAEA’s apparent agreement and acceptance of their intrusion.
Been said that I think the only future for the IAEA is to be dissolved, IAEA is not only failing to accomplish its mission but its posture is counterproductive.
In my innocence I have for a moment believed that the Nobel Prize would give the IAEA, somehow, more respect for itself and more severalty, but everything points to the fact that it is all the same, the US says and the IAEA just agrees.
The IAEA is far from acting in the interest of the people of this planet but concentrating its role to serve the dominating powers of this planet.
God protect us (including the IAEA) from what is coming.
-Paulo Borges , Brasil