| Musharraf and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il
Seoul, Nov. 24: Last July, American intelligence agencies tracked a Pakistani cargo aircraft as it landed at a North Korean airfield and took on a secret payload: ballistic missile parts, made by North Korea.
The shipment was brazen enough, in full view of American spy satellites. But intelligence officials who described the incident say the transport was also a slap at Washington: the Pakistani plane was a Lockheed-built C-130 made in America.
It was part of the military force that General Pervez Musharraf had told President George W. Bush last year would be devoted to hunting down the terrorists of al Qaida, one reason the administration was hailing its new cooperation with a country that only a year before it had labelled a rogue state.
But several times since that new alliance was cemented, US intelligence agencies watched silently as Pakistan’s air fleet conducted a deadly barter with North Korea. In transactions intelligence agencies are still unravelling, the North provided Musharraf with missile parts he needs to build a nuclear arsenal capable of reaching every strategic site in India.
In a perfect marriage of interests, Pakistan provided the North with many of the designs for gas centrifuges and much of the machinery it needs to make highly enriched uranium for the country’s latest nuclear weapons project.
The CIA told members of Congress that North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme, which it discovered only this summer, will produce enough material to make weapons in two to three years.
Yet the CIA report — at least the unclassified version — made no mention of how one of the world’s poorest and most isolated nations put together its new, complex uranium project.
In interviews over the past three weeks, officials and experts in Washington, Pakistan and here in the capital of South Korea described a relationship between North Korea and Pakistan that now appears much deeper and more dangerous than the US and its Asian allies first suspected.
The accounts raise disturbing questions about the nature of the uneasy American alliance with Musharraf’s government. The officials and experts described how, even after Musharraf sided with the US in ousting the Taliban and hunting down al Qaida leaders, Pakistan’s secretive A.Q. Khan Nuclear Research Laboratories continued its murky relationship with the North Korean military.
Pakistan was desperate to counter India’s superior military force, but encountered years of American-imposed sanctions, so it turned to North Korea. For its part, North Korea, increasingly cut off from Russia and China, tried to replicate Pakistan’s success in developing a nuclear arsenal based on enriched uranium, which is one of the few commodities that North Korea has in plentiful supply.
Yet while the US has put tremendous diplomatic pressure on North Korea in the past two months to abandon the project, and has cut off oil supplies to the country, it has never publicly discussed the role of Pakistan or other nations in supplying that effort.
American and South Korean officials say the reason is obvious: The Bush administration has determined that Pakistan’s cooperation in the search for al Qaida is critical.
White House officials noted that Musharraf, after first denying Pakistani involvement in North Korea’s nuclear effort, has assured secretary of state Colin Powell that no such trade will occur in the future.
“He said, ‘Four hundred percent assurance that there is no such interchange taking place now,’” Powell said in a briefing last month. Pressed about Pakistan’s contributions to the nuclear programme that North Korea admitted to last month, Powell smiled tightly and said, “We didn’t talk about the past.”
Intelligence officials say they have seen no evidence of exchanges since Washington protested the July missile shipment. And in that case they cannot determine if the C-130 that picked up missile parts in North Korea brought nuclear-related goods to North Korea.
But American and Asian officials are far from certain that Pakistan has cut off the relationship, or even whether Musharraf is in control of the matter.
In the words of one American official who has reviewed the intelligence, North Korea’s drive in the past year to begin full-scale enrichment of uranium uses technology that “has ‘Made in Pakistan’ stamped all over it.”
Pakistan’s military ties to North Korea go back to the 1970s. But they took a decisive turn in 1993 during a visit to Pyongyang of then Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Her delegation left with plans for North Korea’s Nodong missile, according to former and current Pakistani officials. By April 1998, Pakistan successfully tested a version of the Nodong, renamed the Ghauri. Its flight range of about 1,000 miles put much of India within reach of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.
One Western diplomat who visited North Korea in May 1998, just as world attention focused on Pakistan, which had responded to India’s underground nuclear tests by setting off six of its own, recalled witnessing an odd celebration. “I was in the foreign ministry,” the official recalled. “About 10 minutes into our meeting, the North Korean diplomat we were seeing broke into a big smile and pointed with pride to these tests. They were all elated.
“Here was a model of a poor state getting away with developing a nuclear weapon,” he said.
When the Clinton administration raised the rumours of a Pakistan-North Korea link with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had succeeded Bhutto, he denied them. It was only after Musharraf overthrew Sharif’s government, and after Bush took office, that South Korean intelligence agencies picked up strong evidence that North Korea was buying components for a small enriched-uranium programme.
The agencies passed the evidence along to Washington, according to South Korean and American officials. It looked suspiciously similar to the gas centrifuge technology used in Pakistan.
By this summer, Washington concluded that North Korea had moved from research to production and had to be stopped.
“Here’s the strategy,” one American official said. “Tell the North Koreans, quite publicly, that they can’t get away with it. And say the same thing to Pakistan, but privately, quietly.”
New York Times News Service