How A.Q. Khan Helped Distort America’s DPRK Policy

A.Q. Khan
A.Q. Khan

Washington and Pyongyang may be on the verge of another attempt at negotiation. After a stroke in 2008, Kim Jong Il seems to have spent much of 2009 getting his groove back—launching missiles, testing a nuclear weapon, and separating more plutonium—while Washington looked for new sources of pressure, having cut off North Korea’s access to the international market for everything from yachts to iPods. 

Signs that Six Party Talks might resume have triggered another round of debate about the wisdom of engaging North Korea. These debates play out in the pages of newspapers, like the Washington Post, which published a pair of stories at the end of 2009 based on a letter written by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb and notorious nuclear smuggler. The articles contained some striking claims about Pakistan’s involvement with North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs: first, that North Korean officials showed Khan three disassembled nuclear weapons in 1999; and second, that North Korea, in 2002, was constructing a large uranium enrichment facility. 

A casual reader could be forgiven for concluding that the two stories—“A Nuclear Power’s Act of Proliferation” (November 13) and “Pakistani Scientist Depicts More Advanced Nuclear Program in North Korea” (December 28)—contained new revelations bearing on U.S. policy towards the North Korea…news, in other words.[i] The Post lent its pages to a former White House official to say just that: 

“This paints a picture of even more collaboration than I assumed those countries had,” said Robert G. Joseph, a prominent critic of the 1994 agreement. Joseph served as the principal nonproliferation official at the White House under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005 and then as undersecretary of state for arms control. 

The fact is these claims were well known before Joseph left the White House. They were available to senior government officials like him, as well as to anyone who read the New York Times, where both stories were reported.[ii] 

It also turns out that neither claim is very plausible. It is important to understand the role that these tales have played in the ongoing debate over U.S. policy towards North Korea. According to one narrative, Pyongyang snuck into the nuclear club in the early 1990s. It then attempted to cheat on the Agreed Framework, which the Clinton Administration had accepted as a necessary evil to stop North Korea at a small number of nuclear weapons with the ultimate objective of eliminating its program altogether. The Bush Administration had no choice but to confront Pyongyang about its cheating before it was too late, even at the price of dismantling that agreement. Since it inherited a North Korea with a handful of nuclear weapons and secret plans to add many more, the Bush Administration could hardly be blamed if the North’s arsenal grew under such circumstances. 

This bears directly, therefore, on the wisdom of decisions made during Joseph’s tenure at the White House, in which he was a major advocate of a much tougher line against North Korea. If Pyongyang had three nuclear weapons in 1999 and was on the verge of opening a large enrichment facility, then the 1994 Agreed Framework can largely be judged a failure and Joseph vindicated. 

If, however, North Korea had separated relatively little plutonium prior to 2003 and remained many years away from building an enrichment facility, then the Agreed Framework was a success in managing the risk from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. If Pyongyang had been kept within the Agreed Framework, it would not have been able to engage in many of its later provocations, including nuclear tests conducted in 2006 and 2009. 

Dr. Robert Joseph
Dr. Robert Joseph. Source: CBC

Worse yet, if North Korea possessed even less plutonium than the American intelligence community believed it had, then the Bush Administration alone bears responsibility for the train of events by which Pyongyang went from having no nuclear weapons in 2002 to enough plutonium for a stockpile of at least half a dozen weapons and two nuclear tests. 

Joseph doesn’t just have a dog in this fight; he is one of the dogs. But even more important, the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities suggests the Bush administration made a catastrophic blunder, a perfect matched pair with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

A.Q. Khan Saw Three North Korean Nuclear Weapons 

The first Washington Post story, which is largely about Chinese assistance to Pakistan, contains a claim by Khan that North Korean officials showed him three disassembled nuclear weapons during a visit in 1999. David Sanger first reported the sensational claim in the New York Times in the weeks after Khan’s arrest.[iii]

Why does this matter? In 1999, the United States didn’t know if North Korea had any nuclear weapons. While the public debate centered on the claim that North Korea had enough plutonium for “one, possibly two nuclear weapons,” this estimate was not completely certain. The American intelligence community had compelling reasons for suspicions, but the evidence was always circumstantial. And it did not, at the time, express a view about whether North Korea had actually attempted to render the plutonium in the form of a working weapon. 

Let’s review for a moment. The first North Korean nuclear crisis started when Pyongyang claimed, in a May 1992 declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to have separated 62 grams of plutonium from about 90 grams produced in 86 broken fuel rods. The reprocessing came as a surprise to U.S. intelligence. Moreover, when the IAEA visited the Yongbyon nuclear complex, its inspectors found many discrepancies in the North Korean declaration, suggesting that Pyongyang had conducted multiple reprocessing campaigns over a longer period of time than it had declared. As a result, the intelligence community judged that North Korea had probably secretly unloaded the Yongbyon reactor in 1989 and, as a result, reprocessed enough plutonium for “one, possibly two” nuclear devices. 

Still, American intelligence was not certain—it merely placed the odds of North Korea having enough plutonium for a nuclear device at “better than even.”[iv] And the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) dissented from the estimate. The majority view could not—and did not—exclude the possibility that North Korea had less than the amount of plutonium needed to make a bomb. Indeed, the intelligence community quickly revised downward the estimate of plutonium produced from as much as 12 kilograms to 8.3-8.5 kilograms, only enough for one weapon. 

Yet, developing an approach that hedged against a range of possibilities made sense. That was the rationale behind tjohe 1994 Agreed Framework. Whatever the current status of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, U.S. negotiators were confronted with intelligence estimates that by the end of the decade, North Korea might be able to produce hundreds of kilograms of plutonium once all its facilities were completed. While some would criticize the agreement as a “freeze, in fact President Clinton and his senior aides all agreed that,” it was more urgent to protect the present and the future than to unravel the past, by pinning down how much plutonium North Korea had indeed separated in its earlier reprocessing campaign.”[v] 

The question of whether North Korea already had nuclear weapons would later play a central role in the decision in 2002 to confront North Korea over its clandestine enrichment efforts, even if that meant triggering the collapse of the Agreed Framework (which many senior officials in the Bush administration loathed). After all, if North Korea already had a stockpile of weapons, then a few more might not matter. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed this view on one of the Sunday morning talk shows, asking, “What are they going to do with another two or three nuclear weapons?” 

Whether or not North Korea had enough fissile material for zero, one, or two nuclear weapons in 1999 will probably remain one of those great mysteries. The documents that Pyongyang handed over to the United States in May 2008 during the Six Party nuclear negotiations indicated that it did not reprocess enough material for a bomb until 2003 after the Agreed Framework had collapsed. 

Khan’s claim that North Korea showed him three nuclear weapons is, like many of his statements, self-serving and probably an embellishment or fabrication, apparently meant to demonstrate that he had done no harm to Pakistan since it suggests North Korea was a nuclear power prior to Khan’s assistance. Although the New York Times did not retract the story—after all, Pakistani officials did apparently say Khan claimed to have seen three nuclear weapons—in July 2005, Sanger noted in passing that the claim was “doubted by several specialists in the American intelligence community.”[vi] Siegfried Hecker, the leading American expert on the North Korean nuclear program, told the Post that Khan was trying to evade blame for his actions by claiming that what he had supplied to North Korea “was not that bad because these guys already had nuclear weapons. That’s a nice way to cover his own tracks.” 

Some stories are, at first blush, too good to check. Reading Sanger’s original reporting suggests a certain credulity on his part about either Khan or his source in the administration. The story stated that the three North Korean nuclear weapons “roughly” accorded with the estimate of enough fissile material for “one, possibly two” nuclear weapons. In fact, it was “roughly” three times as much as the authoritative “worst case” estimate by the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee (JAEC). That committee estimated North Korea’s plutonium production before 2003 at 8.3-8.5 kg—enough for just one nuclear weapon, assuming some loss during processing and a conservative nuclear design. Even were North Korea to use a very aggressive design that utilized just 4 kg, three nuclear weapons would require 14.4 kg of plutonium, sixty percent more than the worst-case scenario. There is no sense in which the claim of three nuclear weapons accords with the intelligence estimate, roughly or otherwise. 

North Korea’s Giant Uranium Enrichment Facility 

In the second story, the Post quotes Khan as claiming “North Korea may have been enriching uranium on a small scale by 2002, with ‘maybe 3,000 or even more’ centrifuges.” In other words, North Korea may have a small centrifuge facility perfectly capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for one or two nuclear weapons each year. 

This is an extraordinary claim, though there is less to it than one might think. While it is difficult to know what Khan actually said, Smith and Warrick quote him using qualifiers like “maybe” and “quite likely.” Why might he use such language? Is it possible Khan had little knowledge of the status of North Korea’s efforts by 2002? 

The Pakistani scientist played a central role in his country’s assistance to Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment efforts, even traveling to North Korea in 1994 and 1999. (Claims that Khan traveled to North Korea 13 times appear to be an exaggeration). In early 2001, however, although cooperation between the two countries continued, the new Musharraf government appears to have forcibly retired him under pressure from the United States. As a result, Khan seems to have been extrapolating North Korea’s progress based on Pakistan’s experience with its own HEU program, and on the assistance he had provided to North Korea through 2000. This is interesting information from a well-placed (if untrustworthy) source. But it is not dispositive. 

The United States intelligence community was also watching North Korea’s uranium enrichment efforts. Though it had had concluded in June 2002 that the program was largely limited to research and development, the U.S. assessment changed in July 2002, when it received intelligence that suggested North Korea had recently procured 150 tons of aluminum tubes from Russia. Whether this shipment alone resulted in a reappraisal of the scale of North Korea’s program, or whether reporting from a source in North Korea also played a role is unclear. 

In any event, the American intelligence community issued a September 2002 “memo to holders” of the June 2002 estimate that concluded North Korea had embarked on a production program for highly enriched uranium. The original estimates remain classified, but the CIA provided an untitled one-page document to Congress in November 2002. That document stated North Korea was “constructing a centrifuge facility” capable of producing enough fissile material for “two or more nuclear weapons per year” potentially “as soon as mid-decade.” This is consistent with Khan’s estimate of a facility containing 3,000 centrifuges. (Three thousand machines per unit appears to be the standard configuration for centrifuge modules based on the Pakistani program.) Adding to the confusion, the estimate referred to when the facility was “fully operational”—leaving some room for doubt as to whether North Korea had acquired all the necessary components. 

The allegation that North Korea was constructing a bricks-and-mortar enrichment facility was crucial in setting the collapse of the Agreed Framework in motion. It was on the basis of this information that the then-Assistant Secretary James Kelly confronted North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju during his visit to Pyongyang in fall 2002, resulting in what Kelly claimed was an acknowledgement of the uranium enrichment program. On these grounds, the Administration decided to stop providing heavy fuel oil to Pyongyang, a U.S. obligation under the Agreed Framework, triggering a North Korean response and the demise of that agreement. The Administration chose this course despite warnings from the intelligence community that “if the [Agreed] Framework collapses,” North Korea could “recover enough plutonium for several more weapons.” 

As in the case of Khan’s interrogations, the Bush administration sought to defend its decision to abandon the Agreed Framework by leaking all of this information to the New York Times, which duly reported the construction of a large North Korean uranium enrichment facility with Pakistani assistance.[vii] 

Eventually, however, doubts began to surface in the press about whether North Korea was constructing a “bricks-and-mortar” facility. In 2003, a skeptical U.S. intelligence official told Barbara Slavin and John Diamond in USA Today that the CIA is “not certain there even is” a uranium-enrichment plant in North Korea. In 2005, a former State Department official told Paul Kerr in Arms Control Today that the evidence was “pretty sketchy.” The United States has never identified a specific facility under construction. 

In subsequent Congressional testimony in mid-2007, after the “mid-decade” of the 2002 estimate had passed, the intelligence-community walked back these claims. According to Joseph DeTrani, the North Korean mission manager for the Director of National Intelligence, the community had “high confidence” that North Korea was seeking the components for a large centrifuge program, but only “mid-confidence” that such a program existed. There was no mention of an actual facility. 

The New York Times, Washington Post and the wire services produced a flurry of coverage on the apparent turnabout. The Times and Post wrote outraged editorials, suggesting the Administration had again “exaggerated,” “hyped,” and “spun” the intelligence. It seems odd that Smith and Warrick would revive the claim of the centrifuge facility without referencing this history, which includes reporting by their colleague Glenn Kessler. 

As in the case of North Korea’s plutonium production, we may never know how close Pyongyang was to building a large uranium enrichment facility that could provide another route to the bomb. It appears most of the equipment found its way into other projects, according to testimony by then-Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. The aluminum tubes were used into two conventional weapons systems. The North Koreans provided limited access to confirm the end use of materials including samples of the aluminum tubes. In a final twist to the bizarre saga, according to a report by Kessler, one of the samples was contaminated with enriched uranium, though the source remains unclear. 

The question of whether or not North Korea had a massive enrichment program bears directly on the wisdom of the Bush administration’s decision to confront the North Koreans, triggering the collapse of the Agreed Framework, allowing Pyongyang to produce more plutonium and eventually leading to two nuclear tests. Khan’s speculation about the possibility of such a facility is interesting, especially his estimate of how quickly North Korea might be able to undertake a full-scale production program. But the crucial question remains whether or not North Korea was constructing a full-scale enrichment facility or still attempting to acquire all the components. And, on this matter, Khan had relatively little insight. 

A Final Note 

A.Q. Khan, of course, isn’t writing about North Korea at all. North Korea is just the scenery for a story that he is telling about Pakistan’s domestic politics. This is a tale in which other, more powerful individuals have decided to cooperate with North Korea, Libya and Iran, while he is just a humble civil servant trying to do right by his country. It’s not a wholly convincing story, but it is understandable enough that Khan’s statements should be self-serving. Similarly, the embrace of his claims by Joseph and others is also understandable.  Even if, in any other context, they would be skeptical of someone like Khan, the vindication he provides for discredited policies is obviously appealing. 

These are simple enough human motivations to understand. Yet self-serving statements by scoundrels like Khan or former officials like Joseph obscure, rather than reveal, the real state of North Korea’s nuclear program and, in important ways, complicate the task of devising appropriate policies. 

Nor are the North Koreans any help, with their bombast, bluster and threats. Over the past year, North Korea has a made a series of statements—on April 14, April 29, June 13, and September 4—suggesting that it is in fact pursuing uranium enrichment to produce fuel for yet-to-be-constructed light-water reactors. Much of the press coverage of these statements was inept, incorrectly describing North Korea’s announcement as involving full-scale production (wrong), highly enriched uranium (wrong again), or weaponization (still wrong). 

The actual status of North Korea’s enrichment programs remains unclear. The Obama Administration will have to think through an approach to North Korea that takes into account this uncertainty, while placing in appropriate context what some have called a “footnote” to Pyongyang’s much larger plutonium program. 

There are not obvious or easy answers. But my first bit of advice in devising such policies is an oldie, but goodie: Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper. 

April 1, 2010 

[i] The allegations appear in one of the many documents that A.Q. Khan produced as a consequence of his legal battle with the Pakistani state, including a March 2004 “statement” to the Pakistani government, a handwritten letter to his wife Hendrina on December 10, 2003, and a five-page description of his government’s nuclear cooperation with China. 

Khan actually made three copies of the four-page letter to his wife. Although Dutch authorities in 2004 confiscated the original letter sent to his wife and his daughter and destroyed the second, a third copy was sent to Simon Henderson, a long-time Pakistan watcher who works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Henderson made the letter available to the Washington Post

[ii] “In North Korea and Pakistan, Deep Roots of Nuclear Barter,” New York Times, November 24, 2002 and “Pakistani Says He Saw North Korean Nuclear Devices,” New York Times, April 13, 2004. 

[iii] “Pakistani Says He Saw North Korean Nuclear Devices,” April 13, 2004. 

[iv] Stephen Engelberg with Michael R. Gordon, “Intelligence Study Says North Korea Has Nuclear Bomb,” New York Times, December 26, 1993. 

[v] Wit, Joel S., Daniel Poneman and Robert L. Galluci. Going Critical: The First North Korean Crisis. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. p. 394. 

[vi] David E. Sanger and Jim Yardley, “U.S. Offers North Korea Evidence That Nuclear Secrets Came From Pakistani’s Network,” New York Times, July 29, 2005, p. A10. 

[vii] “In North Korea and Pakistan, Deep Roots of Nuclear Barter,” November 24, 2002.

Recommended citation: Lewis, Jeffrey, “How A.Q. Khan Helped Distort America’s DPRK Policy,” 38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, April 1, 2010. Online at:

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