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Why Won't White House Deal With North Korean 'Identity Crisis' in Syrian Caper?


Three days after the “classified” Administration briefing to Members of Congress on the Israeli bombing of an alleged nuclear facility in Syria seven months ago, the White House refused to deal with one of the major doubts that emerged from the Friday briefing: namely whether, as officials involved in the briefing claimed, a North Korean picture in the video that lawmakers were shown (and which was later released to the networks) is a “nuclear expert” or, as a South Korean newspaper reported that the Seoul government believes, the man is actually a mid-level official of the North Korean Foreign Ministry.

At the Monday gaggle (early morning briefing for reporters) at the White House, I posed the question of the discrepancy in the video to Press Secretary Dana Perino. Her only reply was “I would refer you to the intelligence community on that question.”

Okay. So I will try to get a response from the office of the director of national intelligence or the CIA — and, based on past performance, I have a strong feeling they will provide me with little more than Miss Perino did. As answers like this mount from the Administration, so does irritation on Capitol Hill over the seven months the Bush Administration has taken to address the Israeli bombing and the suspicion that the Pyongyang regime was assisting the government of Syrian President Bashir Assad to develop nuclear capabilities. (Typical White House response: shortly after I spoke to former UN Ambassador John Bolton and he voiced his suspicion that the bombing was out of fear of a North Korean-assisted nuclear facility in Syria, I asked Perino her reaction to Bolton’s speculation; She replied “You know I’m not going to answer that” and moved on).

The “classified” briefing on Friday was being discussed on the news that evening and on blogs through the night. Videos of the alleged nuclear facility were picked up by the networks — all proof that nothing in Washington stays secret for very long.

Chris Nelson, whose “Nelson Report” is a provocative and most timely on-line newsletter on foreign policy, had quite a few of the details on the briefing before 6:00 PM on Friday. According to Nelson, “our experts are prepared to accept the possibility of North Korean involvement in this facility, but, as noted, there is evidence today that the video’s claims of “proof” of a DPRK nuclear expert in the plant seem to be slightly exaggerated.”

Nelson cited the South Korean newspaper “Munhwa Ilbo,” which referred to a South Korean government official “who can identify the man as Jung Tae-yang, the Vice Director General of the DPRK Foreign Ministry’s 2d North American Bureau.” That would make him the deputy to Li Gun (who handles the North American desk for the North Korean foreign ministry — roughly the equivalent of a deputy assistant secretary of state and that is significant that he was in Syria. But coupled with other doubts raised at the briefing (such as why the Administration never referred the worries about a facility to the IAEA), this is clearly not helping the Administration’s case for remaining silent about the Israeli bombing for seven months.

One thing is certain: this is not going away, no matter how much the President’s top spokesman refers me or any other reporter to another outlet of information. Stay tuned.