On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea is trying to convince the United States that it never intended to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. “Some explanations make sense; some are a bit of a stretch,” said one American official involved in the discussions with Pyongyang. Whether or not the North Koreans are telling the truth, we have now reached the critical phase of negotiations that formally started in April 2003.
In February of this year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea agreed to a two-part deal to shut down its nuclear weapons program. The North already has completed its first-stage obligations by turning off and sealing its only working reactor, which is located in Yongbyon. At this moment, American and other officials are implementing the second part by “disabling” the reactor. The North Koreans will complete their second-stage promises when they disclose all nuclear programs.
Why do we suspect that Kim Jong Il’s technicians have been trying to enrich uranium? Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb and the ringleader of a global black market in nuke technology, says he began working with North Korea around 1991. Among other things, Khan supplied equipment for centrifuges—supersonic-speed machines that separate uranium’s different isotopes so as to permit the collection of weapons-grade material—until as late as the middle of 2002, shortly before he admitted his black-market activities. North Korean agents also have been caught buying items that are useful in a uranium-bomb program, such as aluminum tubes suitable for Khan-type centrifuges. Pakistan’s help may have continued until as recently as 2003: Khan has been sighted in the North more than a dozen times.
So far, the North Koreans have denied virtually everything, calling allegations a “whopping lie” fabricated by the United States. Yet there is one way to get to the bottom of this matter: talk to Khan face-to-face. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, claims that American officials have had “access” to him, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that General Pervez Musharraf has rebuffed the Bush administration’s requests for one-on-one contact. There are reports that the Pakistani leader has turned down Washington to prevent the exposure of China’s ties with Khan.
If the embattled strongman is such a good friend of America, as the White House claims he is, then let him prove it. We need to talk to Khan directly now—and General Musharraf can make it happen.