Pakistan and North Korea have been involved for decades in a secretive trade: The Pakistani military acquired missiles from North Korea, and Pyongyang, as part of the deal, gained access to Pakistan's uranium enrichment centrifuges. Now, new details have emerged that reveal how this relationship was smoothed by money. The Washington Post published revelations today, attributed to me, that top-level North Korean officials bribed Pakistani military officials with over $3 million in exchange for the nuclear technology. This disclosure offers fresh details about how nuclear weapon secrets have proliferated across the globe -- and provides a unique insight into the dangerous consequences of the hermit kingdom's "entrepreneurial" role in world affairs.
The story, in short, is this: Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, provided me with a letter written in 1998 by a high-ranking North Korean official, which laid out payments of cash and jewelry intended for two Pakistani generals in exchange for nuclear know-how. Khan, who I have been in correspondence with since the early 1980s, also provided a written narrative that described how he personally handed the money over to one of the generals. While Pakistani officials maintain that the letter is a forgery, both senior U.S. officials and the former International Atomic Energy Agency official in charge of investigating Khan said that the documents accord with their understanding of the corruption that fueled Pakistan's crucial assistance to North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
But the larger issue of why North Korea has been so enthusiastic about acquiring, and subsequently exporting, nuclear technology remains unanswered. What motivated North Korea to reportedly build a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor for Syria -- a project destroyed by Israeli jets in 2007? Why has Pyongyang sold missiles to Iran and may be helping the Islamic Republic with its nuclear program -- perhaps with the P2 centrifuge enrichment technology that it revealed last year?
You don't have to be a specialist in East Asia, or on North Korea's "Juche" ideology of self-reliance, to know the answer. It is simple: cash. American diplomats might go on overseas postings determined "to build and sustain a more democratic, secure and prosperous world," as the State Department's mission statement puts it, but their North Korean counterparts go to make money. Indeed, they have to. It's partly because of their national ideology, and partly because of practical necessity. And it's not just about boosting Pyongyang's foreign exchange reserves.
I remember, when living in Pakistan as the BBC and Financial Times correspondent in 1978, a conversation I had with an American diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad just before the arrival of North Korean Vice President Pak Sung Chul on an official visit. I asked the diplomat, who happened to have an impish sense of humor, what would be a good question to ask Pakistani officials about North Korea.
"Why don't you ask whether North Korea will find another way of funding its embassy?" he suggested, explaining that Pyongyang did not give the embassy enough money to function. Instead, its diplomats would buy duty-free alcohol from diplomat-only stores, and then sell it at vast profit on the local black market.
Islamabad, as the capital of an Islamic state, was dry -- but it was also thirsty. And the North Korean diplomats' bootlegging scheme was a very lucrative business. It drove the Pakistani government crazy, but there was little they could do about it: North Korea was an important provider of artillery and munitions for the Pakistani army.