North Korea-Pakistan Connection?
little over two weeks after North Korea shocked the world by admitting
that it has a clandestine nuclear weapons acquisition programme,
some more dismaying facts have come to light. The most stunning
of these may be the world's first instance of the actual transfer,
from one state to another, of advanced know-how to make nuclear
The North Korean programme in question is based on uranium enrichment,
and is substantially different from the plutonium route the country
pursued from the 1970s on, until it signed the 1994 Agreed Framework
with the United States. Under this agreement, Pyongyang agreed to
close the plutonium reprocessing programme in return for the gift
of two supposedly proliferation-proof 1,000 MW nuclear power reactors
and for the supply of 500,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil a year.
This confession was not a tactical masterstroke calculated to embarrass
an America preoccupied with Iraq. Rather, as Victor D. Cha, a Korea
expert at Georgetown University in Washington, says: This was a
case where Washington simply had the goods on them, and Pyongyang
just didn t see any other way out.
Dear Leader Kim-Jong Il's confession was essentially a highly pragmatic
response, and a way of telling the US that he is not addicted to
terrorist means or excessive secrecy. Washington was embarrassed
and withheld the information it had extracted for 12 days. It finally
leaked it only in the dead of night.
North Korea has since tried to convert its weakness into strength.
It now demands the US should sign a bilateral non-aggression treaty
so that the security concerns of both sides could be addressed to
promote peace on the Korean peninsula. To push this reasonable and
realistic solution, North Korea has pugnaciously asserted its right
to nuclear security in the face of the US's strategy for world supremacy,
by saying the US has massively stockpiled nuclear weapons in its
vicinity and threatened "a small country" [that is, itself].
Washington's immediate response has been to make diplomatic approaches
to North Korea, not to threaten it with war and destruction.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to visit Seoul on Nov
10-12 where he will meet South Korean and Japanese officials to
discuss the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. The
US has also taken up the issue with China.
Washington has again shown it adopts double standards: it is raring
to wage a war on Iraq on the mere suspicion, speculation and surmise
without reasonable or firm proof that it might have a programme
to develop mass-destruction weapons, or might possess such weapons.
But it has an altogether different approach to a state that admits
it has run such a programme in breach of an agreement reached with
Double standards apart, North Korea's diplomatic manoeuvre must
be the world's most astounding exercise in audacious diplomacy.
What Pyongyang is attempting to do is get the US to engage it out
of desperation, with its economy in dire straits, and its regime
isolated. Its means are unusual, if not outlandish. It says it feels
threatened at being included in the Axis of Evil; targeting it,
a fellow-member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which it
has self-admittedly violated), is incompatible with the treaty's
This is breathtaking.
However, the most interesting and disturbing reports pertain to
the provenance of North Korea's uranium enrichment programme, which
it is unlikely to have developed on its own given the dire state
of its economy and industry in the 1990s. There is growing speculation,
corroborated by US and other intelligence, that the source is Pakistan.
For instance, Robert Einhorn, Bill Clinton's assistant secretary
of state for non-proliferation, told The Washington Post that
North Korea and Pakistan have been known to engage in sensitive
trade, including Pakistans purchase of Nodong missiles from
North Korea "[C]oncerns were raised whether there was a quid
pro quo in the form of enrichment technology."
The Nodong, it is generally believed, was acquired in the
mid-1990s (1997?) and renamed Ghauri. The Ghauri has
been repeatedly test-flown in Pakistan.
The New York Times too quotes intelligence officials as saying:
What you have here is a perfect meeting of interests the North had
what the Pakistanis needed and the Pakistanis had a way for Kim-Jong
Il to restart a nuclear programme we had stopped.
A number of Indian intelligence sources too have confirmed the North
Korea-Pakistan trade-off, partly based on the documents they found
on board a North Korean ship which they intercepted in 1999 at an
Indian port en route to Karachi from Pyongyang, carrying
170 tonnes of material suspected to be metal casings and missile
More recently, Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation
project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington,
told India's Outlook magazine that it would be perfectly
rational to assume that Pakistan provided the nuclear technology
in exchange for missiles: It's a logical deal, and at the time it
must have made perfect sense from the Pakistani point of view.
According to Cirincione, the North Koreans established links directly
with Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, head of the eponymous weapons laboratories,
which developed the enrichment technology at Kahuta, based on pilfered
designs. Cirincione said: Khan made 12 separate trips to Pyongyang
in four years, underscoring his intimate and personal relationship
with North Korea.
Another Indian magazine has reported that Benazir Bhutto, then Prime
Minister, too visited Pyongyang clandestinely in the mid-1990s to
finalise agreements for missile purchase and nuclear technology
The forced retirement of AQ Khan the Father of the Bomb, and a national
hero and of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission chairman Ishfaq Khan
in March 2001 sparked off speculation that the action was taken
under US pressure for reasons connected with North Korea's suspected
uranium enrichment programme.
Islamabad has forcefully and repeatedly refuted all allegations
of a nuclear-missile deal with North Korea.
One does not have to be an alarmist or a non-proliferation fundamentalist
to cast doubts on the assurances that General Pervez Musharraf offered
to Colin Powell that Islamabad never supplied nuclear expertise
to North Korea.
When asked whether Musharraf was telling the truth, Powell said:
I'm talking about now and I m talking about what might be happening
in the future. I don't want to go back into the past because it
would involve some sources and methods that I'd not discuss.
On October 18, Powell told a television channel: "I had a very
specific conversation with Musharraf where he assured us 400 percent,
he said that Pakistan was not involved in nuclear proliferation.
I have a relationship with President Musharraf that I believe he
understands the consequences of such behaviour, and I take his word
Predictably, Indian nuclear hawks have made much of these disclosures
and cited Pakistan's unholy nexus with an Axis-of-Evil state as
proof of Islamabad's incurable irresponsibility.
On October 31, Prime Minister Vajpayee rhetorically urged the high
priests of non-proliferation to look around and tackle the clandestine
and illegal development and transfer of nuclear and missile technologies
rather than target countries which has played by the rules.
Such self-righteous claims to being Simon-pure in matters nuclear
would have sounded somewhat convincing if India's own nuclear and
missile programmes, unlike Pakistan's, had not been based on borrowed,
bought or stolen technologies, in addition to indigenous ones.
As it happens, India has received technical assistance or nuclear
material, whether openly or clandestinely, from sources as varied
as the US, UK, USSR/Russia, Canada, China, Norway and France, to
name some. Indeed, the source of the plutonium-239 used in the first
Indian nuclear test, of 1974, was a reactor of Canadian design built
with US assistance and material (heavy water).
Pakistan, it is widely known, has also engaged in all manner of
nuclear deals. But then, nuclear and missile technologies, sub-systems
and materials are among the most traded items in the world's arms
bazaar. A large number of countries have participated in such trade.
To be fair, India has never transferred an evolved, penultimate-stage,
nuclear weapons technology like uranium enrichment, or plutonium
reprocessing with assured access to spent fuel, to another state.
But it must be added that in 1978, the Indian government, it is
believed, toyed with the idea of supplying a nuclear reactor to
Libya at the goading of current maverick defence minister (then
industries minister and former socialist) George Fernandes.
On balance of probability, Pakistan seems to have made such a transfer
in order to obtain medium-range missiles, which it could not build
on its own. North Korea would appear to be technologically far too
backward to be able to have developed gas centrifuge-based uranium
enrichment on its own. (Even India has at best only had limited
success with this.)
If this assessment is correct, the N. Korea-Pakistan deal would
be the first case of Bomb-making know-how being transferred
from one state to another. Hitherto, even the closest of strategic
allies have jealously guarded such technologies e.g. the US from
Britain and the USSR from China in the 1950s. The only instances
of a significant transfer (albeit of components, not evolved technology)
are probably Israel and South Africa.
Today, Musharraf seems to be using his very special leverage with
the US in its battle against Al-Qaeda to seek America's indulgence
for having made a high-risk nuclear-missile trade-off in the 1990s.
There is a good chance he will get away.
Zia-ul-Haq certainly did in the 1980s when he exploited Pakistan's
position as a frontline state vis-à-vis the USSR to push
its own nuclear programme. It is another matter that someone probably
caught up with Zia in mid-air: he died in a mysterious aircraft
accident in 1988.
Cynicism does not always pay, certainly not in matters nuclear,
where most bargains are Faustian, including those planned and executed
with diabolical cunning.
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