April 25, 2008, 8:20 a.m.

Nukes, Lies, and Videotape

By the Editors

‘When exactly did Kim Jong Il become trustworthy?” That was our question following the deal, announced last February, by which the aid spigot to North Korea would be turned back on in exchange for Kim’s renouncing the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Trouble was, the spigot started turning before we had any reason to think Kim Jong Il was telling the truth. Sanctions were lifted and the anti-Kim consensus that had begun to form on the U.N. Security Council fell apart, all without the slightest evidence that anything was changing inside the Hermit Kingdom. And now we have one more reason to call Kim a liar.

That reason comes in the form of a videotape shown to members of the House Intelligence Committee Thursday in conjunction with testimony from the nation’s top intelligence officials. According to those familiar with the tape’s contents, it demonstrates that the Syrian nuclear facility bombed by Israel last September was built with North Korean help and virtually identical in design and function to North Korea’s reactor at Yongbyon. That Kim helped Syria build the reactor has long been alleged, and here we have something coming close to proof.

Work on the Syrian reactor appears to have taken place over the last five years, right up until the Israeli strike. In other words, during the entire course of the six-party talks — the negotiations between the U.S., North Korea, and its neighbors in the region, culminating in last February’s deal — Syria was building a proliferation infrastructure under the auspices of Kim Jong Il. It would be bad enough if Kim had simply been selling blueprints for cash. But the Yongbyon reactor itself is near retirement age and would be of little further use in weaponizing plutonium for atomic bombs. Was Kim hoping to solve this problem — and score a propaganda victory — by promising to shut down Yongbyon while secretly outsourcing his nuclear-fuel operation to a client state? It would be in keeping with his character. We know, for instance, that North Korea still cooperates extensively with Iran on ballistic-missile development, despite assurances that its missile programs have been suspended.


Those eager to ratify our deal with Kim — which is to say, most of the State Department — will argue that no nuclear fuel was found at the Syrian facility. And we have this from David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector: “The successful engagement of North Korea in the six-party talks means that it was unlikely to have supplied Syria with such facilities or nuclear materials after the reactor site was destroyed.” But such arguments miss the point entirely. What should matter to us is that Kim cannot build or export nuclear weapons — not simply that he is not doing so right now. This is, after all, the man who promised in 1994 not to build an atomic bomb, only detonate one in 2006. That monumental breach of trust, as well as dozens of smaller ones, indicates that the wisest course here is to update Ronald Reagan’s dictum. Don’t trust: Verify!

But of course Kim won’t allow that. He has ruled out snap inspections of North Korean facilities, and has refused to make the declaration — required by last February’s deal — of his enrichment and proliferation activities. We still have no idea whether North Korea engaged in or is engaging in surreptitious uranium enrichment to complement the plutonium processed at Yongbyon. And we have not even asked Kim to dismantle his existing nuclear arsenal. Exactly what is it about this picture that has convinced Christopher Hill, the State Department’s top negotiator with Dear Leader, to keep pushing for a normalization of relations? John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador, provided a window into State’s soul when, writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, he reported that Hill was set to offer North Korea a deal whereby it would simply acknowledge U.S. “concern” with proliferation activities. In other words: Don’t bother telling us what you’ve done or proving that you’ve stopped doing it — just listen while we tell you we’re miffed. No one could deny the exquisite nuance of this approach, but effective diplomacy it is not. At this writing, the declaration dispute is still unresolved, and President Bush would do well to keep Hill from resolving it.

The problem with Bush’s North Korea policy is that he doesn’t have one. Or, rather, he has two, and they are at war with each other. The president himself has said — firmly and repeatedly — that he does not intend to let Kim Jong Il off the hook without guarantees that Kim is living up to his end of the bargain. If you feel that way, your goal isn’t a signature on a piece of paper, but a state of affairs that can be routinely and independently verified. Meanwhile, the State Department takes that signature as its endpoint and dismisses Kim’s every missed deadline and lying promise, since to take these seriously would be to jeopardize the deal. Surely the president knows that smiles and handshakes cannot make us safe. If they distract our attention from a lingering threat, they actually make us less safe. It’s time to admit the deal was a mistake and start rebuilding the consensus to sanction Kim Jong Il for his dangerous lies.