A North Korea-Pakistan Connection?

A 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 weapons.

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 the US!

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 spirit!

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 components.

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 transfer.

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 for it."

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.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.