On the same day that George W. Bush addressed the Israeli bombing of an alleged Syrian nuclear facility seven months ago, his former ambassador to the United Nations raised doubts about US claims that a North Korean at the facility was a nuclear scientist.
In an exclusive interview yesterday, former UN Ambassador John Bolton questioned one of the key pieces of evidence offered last week by U.S. intelligence officials to members of Congress that North Korea was assisting Syria in achieving nuclear capabilities — namely, that a North Korean shown in photographs from the Syrian facility bombed by Israel seven months ago was a nuclear scientist. The intelligence officials reportedly told lawmakers at the closed-door briefings the man they claimed was a scientist was recognized from participation at the six-party talks in which North Korea participates and which are aimed at controlling nuclear capabilities.
“I would have been surprised had North Korean permitted any of its nuclear scientists anywhere near the six-party talks,” Bolton told me, “That would be running the risk they might have said something true!”
Bolton’s skeptcism about the U.S. claims of a North Korean scientist in Syria echoed doubts raised shortly after the briefing Friday, when a South Korean newspaper Munwha Ilbo cited a government official in Seoul who identified the individual in question as Jung Tae-yang, the Vice Director General of the DPRK Foreign Ministry’s 2d North American Bureau.
“It wouldn’t have surprised me if a diplomat was there,” said Bolton, noting that Syrian officials flew to Pyongyang shortly after the Israeli bombing of the facility. The former ambassador added that the U.S. claims of a North Korean scientist in Syria “struck me as something wrong” and “could be a case of inaccurate identity.”
Responding to President Bush’s claim at a morning news conference that confirmation of an Israeli bombing of the Syrian facility was withheld for more than seven months because of a “risk of conflict,” Bolton told me that the risk to Israel “existed for a short time but passed a long time ago.” He said he believed that “the U.S. withheld the information to avoid tanking the six party talks,” which Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill has long overseen and claimed is succeeding in reducing the chances of North Korea as a rogue nuclear nation. The six-party talks – which include both Koreas, China, the US and Japan, among others – are the Bush administration’s only means of attemtpting to disarm the nuclear North Korean dictatorship.
If the Syrian facility was in fact a nuclear reactor being built with North Korean help, the six-party talks would be revealed as a failure. One nearly identical to the Clinton administration’s “agreed framework” negotiation with North Korea, which terms the communist regime violated contemporaneously with agreeing to them.
“[Hill] and the whole policy should go,” said Bolton, joining in the calls that began last week for the longtime State Department fixture to resign, “But now, this policy [of trusting North Korea on reducing its nuclear potential through the six-party talks is the President and Secretary of State’s policy more than it is Hill’s, unfortunately.”
Acting on the response of White House Press Secretary Dana Perino to contact U.S. intelligence officials about the dispute over who the North Korean was at the Syrian facility, we twice contacted the Central Intelligence Agency for comment. As we went to press this evening, they had still not returned our calls.