Who made North Korea a nuclear power: Dr A Q Khan or Pakistan?

Last Updated: Tue, May 16, 2017 16:27 hrs
Who made North Korea a nuclear power: Dr A Q Khan or Pakistan?

North Korea is in the news again. It is threatening South Korea, the United States and the entire world with its nuclear and missile arsenal. Most in the world are not much worried. They consider it as a regular bluff by the North Korean dictator. But one never knows when that dictator would become adventurous and pull a stunt that could have far reaching consequences.

Ever wondered how North Korea, a country with the worst kind of communist dictatorship that starves and tortures its own citizens, where there is no proper education system, no technological/engineer base became a nuclear power.

Readers would remember that famous confession of Dr A Q Khan, Pakistan’s infamous `nuclear` scientist. On 4 February 2004, Khan appeared on the television and confessed to have supplied nuclear technology and components to North Korea, Iran and Libya.

During the telecast, Khan accepted his crimes in English and not in Urdu, which is the language understood by most Pakistanis. That telecast was actually for the international audience, specially the United States and European intelligence agencies. Khan explicitly mentioned that this proliferation network was entirely of his own and the Pakistani government or authorities were never involved.

But was it true?

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions started in late 1950s and early 1960s. The erstwhile USSR agreed to set up their first plutonium based nuclear reactor at Yongbyon-Kun for peaceful use of nuclear technology. Later North Korea set up more reactors, signed NPT to get access to latest technology, allowed IAEA inspectors to inspect its nuclear facilities but never gave up its desire to have `the bomb`. In 1993, IAEA’s inspection team had concluded that North Korea is not completely honest about its `peaceful` nuclear program and had reprocessed nuclear material at least thrice – in 1989, 1990 and 1991.

But North Korea was still far from detonating a device.

Here it will be interesting to note that after Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, a US sniffer aircraft flew over the test sites and took air samples. US Los Alamos nuclear laboratory tested those samples and found out that the final test(s) was conducted using plutonium as fuel.

Now, Pakistan had left the plutonium route long ago in 1975 when Khan brought stolen Centrifugal technology from Europe where he was working for URENCO as a technical translator. So why did they detonate a plutonium device? CIA believed that Pakistan tested a North Korean nuclear device based on plutonium fuel.

CIA and western agencies had reasons to believe that.

If we check western intelligence agencies declassified information and investigative work by leading journalists, it becomes clear that Pak-North Korean cooperation started long ago. Apart from China, Pakistan was the only major country in the world that not only maintained diplomatic relations with North Korea but received weaponry from them as well. But the cooperation in Nuclear and missile field started in late 1980s.

Investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark did a commendable job while investigating Pakistan’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons and their proliferation. Their book Deception explains it all. In 2006, they interviewed Benazir Bhutto in Dubai. She revealed some interesting facts.

This idea of proliferation for monetary gains was the brain child of the Pakistani Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg. Towards the end of 1989, Benazir was the Prime Minister and in a meeting (attended by Gen Jahagir Karamat, DG-MI and Gen Hamid Gul, DG-ISI) Gen Beg briefed her about the Kashmir situation and suggested ways to fuel the insurgency by setting up more training camps, providing weaponry and logistic support, infiltrating 100,000 battle hardened Afghan Mujahedeen. Benazir was already under pressure due to poor economic state of the country and from the United State. She did not agree to escalate the situation; however she agreed to let Pakistan Army continue the low level insurgency.

Beg’s second proposal was far more dangerous. To run the low level insurgency, Pakistan needed money from sources independent of IMF funding, US aid etc. This was the first time when he suggested selling off the nuclear technology and assistance to likely customers. Bhutto was stunned and could not believe her ears. But the only customer she could thought of were Iraq, Iran and may be Libya.

She then told the General that IMF gave around $200 million a year to Pakistan and how many `customers` he thought would give Pakistan that big amount. And for how many years? What would happen when those customers have got what all they needed? What will happen when international community get to know about this proliferation?

Bhutto rejected the idea and a disappointed General left her office. Bhutto claimed she had no clue about when happened later as military would keep her away from the KRL (Khan Research Laboratory) and the nuclear program.

But the General did not stop. In a 2006 interview, Robert Oakley, Ambassador of the United States in Pakistan from 1988 to 1991, informed the authors of the book that soon after the meeting with Bhutto, Gen Beg went to Iran to get their support in Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir and in return offered Iranians support in their nuclear program. Oakley had informed US administration about this development but considering the Afghan Jihad, the US administration kept quiet.

Benazir also revealed that Pakistani Army and AQ Khan did not lose hope. In December 1993, she was to visit Beijing and AQ Khan approached her again. He met Benazir and requested her to visit Pyongyong with a special request. Khan wanted Benazir to ask North Korean dictator for NoDong missiles. He argued that Pakistan was developing short range missiles which were not good enough to hit deep inside India. He said that `we have the bomb but we can’t deliver it`. Benazir was again shocked, but agreed for a short trip to North Korea on her way back.

She discussed Khan’s proposal to her then Counsel – Hussain Haqqani. He advised her not to fall in the trap of Security establishment but Bhutto did not want to cross Army’s way again. She tried earlier during her first term as the PM and she was accused of being a threat to the national security and her government was dismissed. Bhutto did not want that to happen again. She claimed that she believed that missile deal would be against cash and had no clue about Army and Khan’s plan to exchange nuclear technology instead.

Bhutto flew to Pyongyong on 29 Dec 1993 and during the dinner, a nervous Benazir leaned over North Korean dictator and said "Give my country Nodong missile’s blue prints, we need those missiles". Kim stared at her while she repeated the request. After a few moments’ silence, he agreed.

Bhutto came back with a bag full of technical papers and disks.

Soon Pak Army and Khan got what they wanted – Nodong missiles. They repainted the missile hurriedly and test fired it. Dr Shafiq, son of Brig Sajawal who was in-charge of facilities administration of KRL, revealed to Adrian Levy and Catherine that `there was so much excitement that no one cared to notice that paint on the missile was still wet`.

Leading newspaper The Guardian had reported the same while quoting David Wright, the co-director of the global security programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists "The first result was the Ghauri, a missile with a range of 1,500kms (930 miles). Basically, it was a repainted North Korean missile."

An evil deal had started where Pakistan’s Uranium Enrichment technology was being exchanged for North Korean missile technology and some "cash".

In 1995, former US ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley (mentioned above) held a conference in Washington where he invited three persons from Pakistan – (i) former vice-chief Gen (R) Arif, (ii) Mr. Agha Murtaza Poya - Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper `The Muslim` and (iii) famous Pakistani journalist and editor of `The Friday Times`, Najam Sethi. During the conference, Oakley surprised all of them by showing photos of Pakistani Air Force’s C-130 planes unloading centrifuges and loading Nodong missile components. But Pak again denied conducting any such exchange.

Soon there was plenty of other proof. Khan and PAF C-130s started making frequent trips to North Korea. CIA and other agencies tightened their grip over Pakistan’s network. The US administration could no longer resist pressure from State Department and Intelligence agencies, who were giving irrefutable proof of Pakistan Security Establishment’s (Army leadership and Khan) one stop shop that was supplying everything to North Korea, Iran and Libya – from the blue print to the actual centrifuges, technical support, bomb design and trigger mechanism.

Everything was on offer for dollars – most of the amount went to Pakistan/Pakistani Army treasury and some of it went to personal pockets. In 2011, Washington Post reported that Khan had released a copy of a letter from a North Korean official, dated 1998. The letter had details of the transfer of $3 million to former Pakistani army chief Jehangir Karamat and $500,000 plus some jewellery to another military official, Lt-Gen Zulfiqar Khan.

Finally in 2002, the US officially announced that they had proof that Pakistan/AQ Khan’s network had exported the centrifugal technology to North Korea. But Pakistani President Musharraf did not hand over Khan for any investigation. When pressure kept mounting, the Pakistani Security Establishment persuaded Khan to take the sole responsibility in country’s "national interests". Khan was assured that there would be no trial, no one would be allowed to question him and at most, he would be under house arrest. The rest is history.

But the Pakistan-North Korea cooperation never stopped. As per Sunday Guardian report, some sources suspect that North Korea is conducting nuclear tests for Pakistan to provide vital data to Pakistan. This crucial data is needed to perfect the tactical nuclear weapon designs and their mating with the North Korean missiles.

Interestingly China, the mentor and major supporter of both these countries, came out as the main beneficiary of this game. In early 1990s, China had refused to provide M-11 missiles to Pakistan as it was normalizing its relations with the United States and was hoping to sign trade agreements to transfer manufacturing from the US to China. But China had earlier provided nuclear bomb design to Pakistan and never stopped North Korea or Pakistan to fulfil each other’s needs. Now both his main allies are threatening his arch enemies – the United States and India.



Sumit Walia is an IT Specialist, based in Germany . He is also a military history buff who continues to explore & research various facets of the Indian Military history in his spare time.

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