The US faces a dilemma going into the next round of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons: how firmly to press North Korea for details of proliferation of its nuclear technology to foreign clients.
Ahead of the Thursday meeting in Beijing, the issue has assumed critical importance with revelations of an Israeli raid early this month on a Syrian base where North Koreans were suspected of imparting not only know-how but also materiel needed for Syria to develop nuclear warheads.
"The US government has some evidence, but they seem to be deciding now is not the right time to talk about it," says Kim Tae Woo, senior research fellow at the Institute of Defense Analyses, affiliated with the South Korean defense ministry.
Indeed, US officials have said almost nothing publicly about what was going on at the base near the Turkish border in northern Syria that according to media reports prompted Israel first to send in commandos and then to bomb it.
Mr. Kim believes that Syria's goal was to get "the technology for enrichment" of uranium, and that North Korea probably supplied uranium fluoride – the gaseous substance from which emerges the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear warheads.
North Korea's expertise in highly enriched uranium raises another issue for negotiators to consider at the upcoming six-party talks: the exact status of North Korea's highly enriched uranium program.
The chief US envoy, Christopher Hill, says he hopes for "clarity" on the issue at this week's six-party talks at which North Korea's envoy, Kim Kye Hwan, is to list in detail all aspects of his country's nuclear program.
A top North Korean official acknowledged the existence of the program to a delegation to Pyongyang led by Mr. Hill's predecessor, James Kelly, in October 2002, but North Korea since then has denied anything to do with enriched uranium.
North Korea-Syria connection
This week, North Korea may get around the issue of highly enriched uranium, according to analysts here, by admitting that it received advice, and perhaps some centrifuges, from Pakistan in the days when the Pakistan nuclear program was run by the since-disgraced physicist A.Q. Khan. North Korea can then say it never did anything more to develop warheads with uranium and the Pakistan relationship was short-lived and no longer exists.
North Korea may have more difficulty, however, explaining what was going on at the Syrian base.
"The Israelis must have had pretty good evidence," says Robyn Lim, professor of international relations at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. "The US had to have been told in advance of the raid, and the Turks would have to have known in advance as well."
But why would North Korea have a team at the Syrian base while six-party talks are about to resume?
"The connection with Syria is ongoing business," says Mr. Kim of the Institute of Defense Analyses. "It's not something that can be disconnected. The US must have been aware of that information for a long time."
Indeed, Syria maintains strong relations with North Korea. A Syrian delegation visited Pyongyang last week.
"There's no doubt Syria has long been interested in the enrichment of uranium," says Kim. "The Syrian delegation in Pyongyang was probably talking about both nukes and missiles."
Professor Lim, a former Australian intelligence analyst, says while North Korea will "pretend to come clean" at the talks, the presumption is the North continues to export missiles to Middle Eastern countries and may well have also been selling nuclear secrets. She sees North Korea as participating in the talks for the sake of the enormous aid that's promised if the North convinces the US, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan that it has abandoned its nuclear program.
"The talks are designed just to keep enough aid flowing to prop up the regime," she says.
N. Korea could react
Analysts doubt, however, that the six-party talks will fail despite the issues of proliferation and highly enriched uranium. North Korea has already shut down its five-megawatt reactor at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon where it's believed to have made up to a dozen warheads, including one that it detonated last October in its only nuclear test to date.
Mr. Hill "will have no other option" but to raise the issue of proliferation in the talks, says Kim Song Han, a professor at Korea University. Nonetheless, he says, the priority will be to make North Korea disable its Yongbyon facilities, which made warheads with plutonium at their core.
"If the US pushes North Korea to be more detailed," Professor Kim says, "North Korea will react very harshly."
This week's talks will help set the stage for next week's North-South Korean summit in Pyongyang at which South Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun is to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Mr. Roh says he wants to pursue a "peace system" with North Korea while talking only briefly about the nuclear issue since it's already "being resolved."
Kim predicts North Korea will go through with disablement of its facilities at Yongbyon but remains "pessimistic" about dismantlement – the final stage – and is not certain if inspectors will ever see facilities elsewhere, including the site of the underground nuclear test.