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GOP asks about N. Korean role in Syria

Times Staff Writer

House Republicans pressed the Bush administration’s top North Korea negotiator Thursday to explain a reported Israeli airstrike last month on a Syrian nuclear facility under construction, indicating growing congressional concern over the incident.

At a Capitol Hill hearing, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee accused the administration of improperly withholding details of the Sept. 6. bombing raid, saying they needed to know of any evidence that North Korea was involved in spreading nuclear technology to Syria.

Evidence of North Korean involvement in a Syrian program would be grounds to void a pending nuclear deal with North Korea, some said.

Christopher Hill, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Asia and the official responsible for U.S. negotiations with North Korea, acknowledged under intense questioning that he had raised the issue of Syria in recent talks with the North Korean government.

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The statement was the closest any senior administration official has come to acknowledging possible North Korean involvement in a Syrian nuclear program. But Hill, like other senior officials, including President Bush, declined to confirm the Israeli strike had occurred, saying he was not authorized to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.

On Thursday, the private Institute for Science and International Security, based in Washington, said it had obtained commercial satellite photos showing that a large building at the Syrian site had been razed. Its website, www.isis-online.org, includes before-and-after images and says tractors or bulldozers can be seen where the suspected reactor building that was being constructed no longer stands.

At the hearing, Hill testified: “Clearly we cannot be reaching a nuclear agreement with North Korea if, at the same time, they’re proliferating. It is not acceptable.”

In February, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program and allow in international inspectors in return for energy assistance and the unfreezing of North Korean assets. The agreement, the details of which are still being finalized, has been criticized by GOP conservatives for rewarding the government in Pyongyang before its nuclear program is fully dismantled.

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Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a series of Republican demands to be briefed on the Israeli strike and any evidence of nuclear assistance from North Korea or Iran.

Earlier this week, leading Republicans on the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees, both among a select group of senior congressional leaders who have been briefed on the incident, demanded that all members of Congress be filled in.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) said at the hearing that if there were evidence that North Korea was providing Syria with nuclear assistance, it would be “a pretty damning indictment of Pyongyang’s intentions” that should call into question the six-party talks on the new agreement.

Hill said that the administration would not tolerate nuclear proliferation by North Korea, but declined to say whether intelligence gathered as a result of the Israeli strike showed evidence of North Korean involvement.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com


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