I only got around to asking Pakistani officials about this some 20 years later, during a trip to Islamabad in summer 1998. Just before my arrival, a curious news item had appeared in the international press: The wife of a North Korean diplomat, Maj. Gen. Kang Tae-Yun, had been shot dead in Islamabad, apparently accidentally, by a neighbor's servant. (It was the transfer of her body home that is referenced in the letter published today in the Washington Post.) In conversation with a senior Pakistani official, while trying to probe the story, I recalled the anecdote about how the North Koreans funded their local embassy. He smiled ruefully and muttered: "They still do."
The most frequently mentioned line of conjecture for why Mrs. Kang was shot suggests Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country's feared spy agency, organized the operation because it thought she was revealing information about contacts between Pakistan and North Korea to Western intelligence agencies. But North Korean official Jon Byong-Ho, who authored the letter, clearly thought that the real target was Mr. Kang -- officially the North Korean economic counselor in Islamabad, but actually Pyongyang's coordinator of nuclear and missile cooperation, working closely with A.Q. Khan.
According to Khan, the Kangs were walking up their driveway of their home, when the telephone in the house started to ring. Kang rushed ahead to take the call just as a shot rang out. Kang was not hit, but his wife was peppered with shotgun pellets and fatally wounded.
An investigation by the Pakistani military found that the shot was "accidentally" fired by the neighbor's cook, who had been holding the shotgun of the neighbor's armed watchman. (The Kang's house was in a smart neighborhood of Islamabad; nearby villas were rented to Chinese military sales executives as well as a Japanese diplomat. Such houses usually have several servants and a cook, as well as a watchman on the gate.) But why would Kang have been the real target? Perhaps his greed got to him: The possibility should not be ruled out that Kang had been running commercial rackets in Islamabad, and had upset or had forgotten to pay off the right people.
But it might not have been whiskey that was Kang's game. Khan told me that, in 1997, Kang was involved with one attempt to buy so-called maraging steel from Russia, a vital material for making uranium enrichment centrifuges, particularly of the P-2 type recently observed by U.S. scientists visiting North Korea. A sample of the steel had been sent to Kang in Pakistan, but was shipped via British Airways and, unsurprisingly, impounded by British authorities. In early 1998, again according to Khan, Kang tried to buy additional undisclosed, high-tech items in Russia.
Like the North Korean diplomats who lined their pockets by running a liquor smuggling business out of the embassy in Islamabad, Kang's motives may not have been simply nationalistic. He was, I am told, trying to turn a profit on the transactions in order to fund his son's schooling. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il provided his son with a Swiss education, and it sounds like Kang thought his child deserved the same. The Juche philosophy of self-reliance may be meant to protect the hermit kingdom, but as the experience of North Korean officials and those caught in the crossfire in Pakistan attests, it is also a good excuse to make a killing.