U.S. claims that North Korea may have assisted in developing a covert nuclear reactor in Syria could be a bid by White House hardliners to derail talks with Pyongyang and force confrontation, says CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
The network's chief international correspondent, who spoke with Pyongyang's top nuclear negotiator in a recent trip to the secretive Stalinist country, said the timing of the claims could be significant as U.S.-North Korea relations reach a key stage.
"The question now amongst the community watching these negotiations, is why has this Syria-Israel situation been made public by elements in the United States right now?" Amanpour says.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said the Syria reactor was months away from functioning for "non-peaceful purposes" when it was destroyed in an Israeli bombing raid last year. The White House on Thursday released video and graphics of the site, accusing North Korea of involvement.
"We have long been seriously concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons program and its proliferation activities," a White House statement said. "North Korea's clandestine nuclear cooperation with Syria is a dangerous manifestation of those activities."
Amanpour says the new claims could just be an attempt by the United States to ratchet up pressure on North Korea amid international efforts to disable the country's Yongbyon nuclear reactor and account for its plutonium stockpile.
Pyongyang has always insisted Yongbyon is being used for peaceful purposes, refuting Western claims it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. It says it is willing to cooperate with a denuclearization program in return for Western aid.
However Amanpour says the latest U.S. claims could be an attempt at exacerbating relations with North Korea and reviving tensions that have previously triggered threats of possible military action from both sides.
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"The kindest description of why they have said this is to strengthen the United States' bargaining hand as it tries to nail down and conclude its negotiation with North Korea," she says.
"The more pointed description is that hardliners in and around the U.S. administration want to scuttle these negotiations, don't believe in negotiations and want to have a pretext to allow these to fail and pursue a harder line against North Korea."
Amanpour said that North Korean nuclear proliferation -- spreading its atomic knowledge beyond its borders -- is a key element in the negotiations with the West.
She said during her recent meeting with North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan, the official denied any nuclear cooperation with Syria, but confirmed military cooperation with the Middle Eastern country.
Amanpour said all eyes would now be on Pyongyang as the latest claims could potentially bring a halt to years of delicate and faltering discussions involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
"The key right now is to watch what North Korea does and what its reaction is to the publication of this video and these computer-generated graphics in the United States," she said.
"If North Korea gets anxious about them and decides to pull back from negotiations, that would be a setback, if however it holds tight and continues with negotiations, that is obviously something U.S. negotiators will be very pleased about."
© 2008 CNN