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
Wednesday, April 28, 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. 

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.

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:

  • 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.

  • 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  

Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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