The Washington Post revealed yesterday accusations and alleged evidence of North Korean bribes for nuclear “know-how” in an article that if true, will prove extremely damning for Pyongyang, Islamabad, and Washington. Any iota of faith left in North Korea’s desire to ever denuclearize would disappear among any of the remaining believers, for it would confirm that Pyongyang was pursuing a uranium path to nuclear weapons simultaneous to the steps it was taking towards denuclearization in the late 1990s. The reputation of Pakistan’s former Chief of Army Staff, General Jehangir Karamat (also ex-U.S. Ambassador and Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commissioner) would be in tatters, raising serious questions in Washington about nuclear security in a country increasingly plagued by terrorism.
In essence, The Post’s story suggests that Abdul Qadeer Khan personally handed over North Korean money to a Pakistani general in 1998 in exchange for nuclear know-how. To corroborate, Khan provided The Posts’ source (Simon Henderson) with a letter he allegedly received from North Korean Workers’ Party Secretary, Jon Bong-ho, which detailed payments of cash and jewelry intended for two Pakistani generals. Henderson received the backstory and letter “in the years after [Khan’s] 2004 arrest by Pakistani authorities”, deciding to pass them onto The Post in 2011 “because he lacked the resources to authenticate it himself”. But despite The Posts best efforts, the articles author R. Jeffrey Smith admits he was unable to confirm the allegations, instead providing argument and counter-argument from U.S. and Pakistan officials respectively. Given the serious allegations contained in the article and the potential ramifications if proved true, it is important to look closer at both source and evidence before making any hasty conclusions.
This A.Q. Khan leak is not the first that appeared in The Post via Simon Henderson, with a piece last year (also written by Smith) drawing criticism in some areas for the faith then in Khan’s proliferation narrative. As Jeffrey Lewis explained of Khan at that time, “he is not an historian, attempting to document the operation of a proliferation network for future scholars, or a journalist with a big scoop. He’s a perp, trying to save his own skin and repair his reputation.” In 2009, another Khan-leaked story appeared in The Post which drew similar reactions from ISIS. On that occasion, Albright et al suggested that, “many of his assertions are self-serving and highly dubious… He has proven that he is unable to honestly relate the facts fully as he knows them and has many reasons to deceive, obfuscate or suppress the truth.” Whether we can take Khan’s word on this occasion as being authoritative, is thus difficult to gauge.
Another interesting aspect to The Posts’ story is timing. From the reference to Henderson having received the letter from Khan in the years following 2004, one must ask why then it was only passed on in summer 2011. The information would have been much more relevant to release in 2002, when allegations were rife that North Korea was simultaneously pursuing a uranium enrichment program (the form of nuclear technology AQ Khan was most knowledgeable of). Could political reasons be behind the timing, perhaps to discredit Pakistani officials further in the aftermath of the Osama Bin Laden debacle? Or is this because The Post needed significant time to check the credibility of an otherwise highly damaging letter and story.
Of the letter – which provided the main evidence to yesterday’s story – The Post spoke to former IAEA staffer Olli Heinonen and an unnamed Pakistani embassy official to get their opinions on its authenticity. According to yesterday’s article, Heinonen claimed that the letter was similar to other North Korean notes that he had seen or received over the years, lacking a letterhead and bearing similarities “of clandestine payments by North Korea to Pakistani military officials and government advisers.” Unsurprisingly the Pakistani official explained, “it is not on any official letterhead and bears no seal… The reference to alleged payment and gifts to senior Pakistani military officers is ludicrous.” So what should we make of this difference in testimony?
Regardless of whose side you take, several things do nevertheless seem unusual for correspondence emanating from such a senior North Korean political figure in 1998, as Peter Hayes has already pointed out. To start, all DPRK correspondence received after 1997 was dated according to the Juche calendar, with (on occasion) the regular format date alongside it. Interestingly, the letter published by The Post only features the standard format date. Secondly, with the degree of secrecy required by nuclear bribery, it would have been highly imprudent for Jon Byong Ho to make reference to any payments or gifts in writing – especially so when the reference in question is both casual and secondary to the main contents of the letter, reporting on a transaction that had already took place. Another suspicious element is the quality of the photocopy of the letter itself – would its source, AQ Khan, only have had access to a photocopier so evidently on its way out (note the grainy texture and distortion).
With regards to the actual content of the language, it would seem that tonality of the English in the letter doesn’t quite seem right. Even the works of North Korea’s finest translators at the Foreign Language Publishing House sound awkward to a native ear, so it is surprising that the language found in Jon Byong Ho’s writing sounds as natural as it does. Today, Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS added to this point, noting the repeated unnecessary use of the present progressive tense in the letter (“I am hoping”), in his experience “more akin to South Asian usage than what those schooled in British or American English would use”. In addition, he observed the absence of an apostrophe in “Korean Workers’ Party”, something he claims to have never seen in communications emanating from North Korea.
Despite the unusual characteristics of the letter, some have nevertheless suggested that because The Post seems to have established that Simon Henderson did indeed receive the materials from Khan, inconsistencies with Khan’s own proliferation narrative prove the letter might well be real. This is because it includes details that Khan himself would not have chosen to invent or publicize after his arrest in 2004. As Arms Control Wonk explained, “the letter depicts [Khan] as primarily responsible for dealing with the North Koreans and shipping centrifuge parts and components abroad. This undercuts Khan’s recent claims that various foreign black-market suppliers were acting autonomously.” Nevertheless, by naming Jehangir Karamat and Zulfiqar Khan, A.Q. Khan is buttressing “his claims about the role of senior Pakistani military officials in sanctioning his activities,” something he might presumably have been motivated to do not long after his 2004 arrest.
While it appears more than likely that the letter and notes behind The Posts’ article were willingly passed from Khan to Henderson, the evidence to suggest the letter might be authentic from a North Korean perspective is a lot harder to ascertain. However, North Korea’s recent uranium enrichment revelations suggest that the country has almost certainly had foreign technical assistance in this domain. Whether that dates back to 1998 will only be answered if and when Pyongyang’s diplomatic archives become available.
Tad Farrell runs NKNews.org – a North Korea News and Information Resource