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US lawmaker says North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria probably not occurring now

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Posted: December 12, 2007 3:06 p.m.
Updated: December 27, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    WASHINGTON — U.S. officials on Wednesday suggested that any past nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria would not scuttle nuclear disarmament talks with Pyongyang, provided the Asian country proves no cooperation is happening now.
    Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy at the six-nation talks, said after a closed-door meeting with U.S. senators that the U.S. needs to make sure ‘‘that proliferation issues, whether they have existed in the past or not, certainly don’t exist in the present or in the future.’’
    The Bush administration has refused to publicly comment on the matter, and Hill would not discuss Syria specifically.
    But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told reporters after the briefing, ‘‘I came away with the sense that whatever, if anything ever had occurred in the past, it is not occurring now, and I think our negotiators feel that with good confidence.’’
    When asked if North Korea must detail any cooperation with Syria in a declaration outlining all its nuclear programs due by month’s end, Hill said, ‘‘All programs need to be addressed.’’
    On Sept. 6, Israeli warplanes struck a target in Syria, which, according to news reports quoting unidentified U.S. officials, was a nuclear facility linked to North Korea.
    U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern that North Korea may have helped Syria pursue a nuclear weapons program. Such cooperation would raise the specter of a country that conducted a nuclear test last year — North Korea — providing atomic assistance to Syria, a nation Washington considers hostile and a sponsor of terrorism.
    Syria has repeatedly denied that it is building a nuclear facility. North Korea denies accusations it spreads its nuclear expertise beyond its borders.
    North Korea’s nuclear declaration is of intense interest to many in Washington. The Bush administration wants Pyongyang to provide details of a U.S. claim that the country pursued a secret uranium enrichment program, as well as its known plutonium production. North Korea has said it does not have a uranium program.
    Hill said North Korea is continuing work on its declaration; he said he expected a complete declaration ‘‘around the year end’’ but provided no further details.
    North Korea already has begun disabling its main nuclear facilities under an agreement with the other countries at the talks — China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Washington hopes to use North Korea’s declaration as a guide to nuclear programs to be dismantled by the end of next year.

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