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Bombing North Korea in Syria?

SyriaIranNorth KoreaUnrest, Conflicts and WarNuclear WeaponsDefensePolitics

John Bolton, the controversial and spectacularly mustachioed former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a new book out, with the curiously embattled title of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations ." At an Oct. 30 meeting with The Times' editorial board, he said that the book shows how "in September and October of 2004, [Colin] Powell tried to reverse the policy on Iran to be more accommodating to the Europeans, and I was able to stop that, along with some other people. Only to find out when [Condoleezza] Rice came in, she went and changed the policy anyway even though at the time she agreed with my assessment that Powell had been moving in the wrong direction."

Hawky stuff. And plenty more where that came from.

(On North Koreans allegedly helping build nukes in Syria.)

Bolton: The Israeli raid on Syria on September the sixth has already raised questions whether during the entire life of the six-party talks North Korea may have been cloning its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in Syria. Which is a, uh, which is a way of, uh, avoiding inspection even better perhaps than building facilities and caves in North Korea, because if the inspectors are only looking in North Korea, and you've created a facility in Syria, it's not likely they're going to find it. [...]

[T]hese unanswered questions about what the North Koreans are doing in the Syrian desert [are] so important. Because if they were building an entirely new reactor in cooperation with Syria, in cooperation with Iran or whatever, they're really much further along in protecting that technology than allowing inspectors in Yongbyon.

Tim Cavanaugh: What's the evidence of North Korean involvement with the Syrian reactor, the Syrian project?

Bolton: Most of it is circumstantial at this point. And that's one reason why I think it's important that the administration, or the Israelis or someobdy, tell us more of what they learned there. The first thing that struck me was that within a few days, maybe even a few hours after the Israeli raid, the North Koreans issued a press release condemning it. You know, because of their deep and abiding interest in events in the Syrian desert.

My gut reaction, and it wasn't anything more than that, was that it probably meant that North Korean personnel had been killed or wounded in the raid. And you know it's a perfectly human bureaucratic response; if your people get killed, you know, you at least can, you issue a statement that condemns the raid. But it would mean that there was a defect that allowed the statement to be issued even before North Korea could say we want silence on the thing. There have since been several very high-level visits between Syrian and North Korea, which is unusual--

Marjorie Miller: Where were those?

Bolton: Between Pyongyang and Damascus.

Miller: But which way; both ways?

Bolton: Both ways. One Syrian went to Pyongyang, and a high-level North Korean official I think recently traveled to Damascus. Um, there were press reports that there had been a North Korean ship, a North Korean flagship that offloaded cargo in Syria a few days before the raid. Um, and I think the official Syrian comment on that was that it was a cargo of cement, which brought back to me the interdiction of a North Korean ship going to Yemen in late 2002, the So San, where Spanish naval personnel interdicted the ship, and the master of the ship said "We're just carrying cement bags," so the Spaniards dug through 15 layers of cement bags until they found crates with a dozen Scud missiles in them. So when I heard "North Korean ship heading to the Middle East with a cargo of cement," that rang that bell.

And now you've seen these, I'm sure these overhead photograhs of a facility that a lot of independent experts have said looks suspiciously like the Yongbyon facility in terms of dimensions. [...]

The fact is that it's pretty clear that the reactor has been under construction for some time, and what that means is that if it is a reactor, if it was North Korean in origin, that the North Koreans have been building this facility during the entire duration of the six-party talks. Now there are plenty of things we don't know about it, and I think the most important is whether there were North Korean personnel working at this site in Syria subsequent to the February agreement this year, because that would indicate typical North Korean duplicity in promising to give up their nuclear program when in fact they're cloning it in a different location. [...]

(On pre-emptive strikes to take out nuke plants.)

Michael McGough: Ambassador, is there some middle ground between what we've been doing, which you think is too accommodationist, and then the sort of freelancing approach of the Israelies, to just sort of bomb things? Is there any middle ground to get North Korea and Iran to comply, and to be more transparent about what they're doing with, you know, nuclear programs that may or may not be designed to culminate in a nuclear weapon?

Bolton: Well, I don't think the Israelis were acting in an irresponsible fashion. They obviously had intelligence that told them this was a very high-value target, and given the tensions that we currently have in the Middle East, I don't think they would have taken military action unless they felt it was absolutely critical to go after this target. I have heard, and I think now it's been reported, that the Israelis actually came to us in the spring of this year, and said "We have a problem with this facility," and that they were prepared to take action then. The U.S. said, "Well, we don't want you to do that, we want more information" or whatever, and the Israelis said that they would withhold until, but not later until the fall. Which appears to be what they did by the September the sixth raid.

So I don't think they acted precipitously, and indeed it raises a real question: If this location was actually under construction since 2000, 2001, why it is that we weren't aware of it, and more concerned about it than we have been?

But the issue for states like Iran and North Korea is whether they will ever voluntarily give up their nuclear weapons program, and I don't think -- for different reasons, they're two very different cases -- but I don't think that either one of them are going to be chatted out of their nuclear capability. For both of them it represents a trump card for the regime, and it's the way the long negotiations that we've had in both cases -- the six-party talks in the case of Korea, and the EU three negotiations in the cases of Iran, have really worked to the benefit of North Korea and Iran, respectively. Because the negotiations have given the proliferators what they need most and can't purchase for any price, and that's time. Time is almost always on the side of the proliferators, and for four years now North Korea was advancing its program and Iran was advancing its program. To the point where our options in both cases are very constrained and not very happy ones.

So I'm not saying that that is invariably the case, but in the case of governments like these I think that's the answer.

Miller: Is there a viable military option regarding Iran, and if so who is articulating that outside and inside the administration?

Bolton: I think there is a viable military option, I don't think it's a happy option. I don't like being in this position; my preference would have been to have indigenous forces inside Iran change the regime. Because I think there is historical experience at a time of massive change in regime of governments giving up pursuit of nuclear weapons. When the apartheid government in South Africa was replaced by a democratic government, the new government said we're giving up nuclear weapons. When the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus all said, "We're gonna transport, we're gonna give back Soviet nuclear weapons to the Russian federation." And that same possibility exists I think in Iran. But regime change doesn't happen overnight, and because of this four-plus years of failed European negotiation, given the progress that Iran has made scientifically and technologically, we're now close to a point where the use of force may be the only alternative available in a realistic time frame to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

This is not, this, and as I say it's a very unhappy option to have to contemplate, but life is about choices, and if the choice is between an Iran with nuclear weapons, and the use of a limited amount of force to prevent that, then I think you have to look at the amount of force.

Miller: But what does that look like? What do you attack, what do you accomplish in a military solution?

Bolton: Well first it doesn't look anything like Iraq. It does not involve the use of American ground forces in anything like the Iraq context. I think what you have to do is break Iran's mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle at one or more critical points.

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