||Not having been entirely complimentary about the Asia policies of the Bush administration in the past, let me agree with them for a change on one particular. Last Friday, the Financial Times quoted US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as saying that Washington has "concerns of proliferation" with Pakistan, centering on "people who were employed by the nuclear agency and have retired".
Armitage didn't elaborate on details or evidence. But colleagues confirmed that the object of concern is North Korea, which is believed to have traded its missile technology for access to Pakistan's nuclear secrets.
Pyongyang officials are said to have had contact with top figures in Pakistan's nuclear program, and even to have recently visited a nuclear weapons site there. Islamabad hasn't signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but a spokesman quickly denied any dealings with the DPRK.
Too quickly, perhaps. Armitage's comment was timed, no doubt deliberately, to coincide with a week-long visit to Pakistan by the commander of the North Korean air force, Colonel-General O Kum-chol. General O's published itinerary included visits to his hosts' air headquarters at Chaklala, an air force base at Minhas, and (for variety) the naval headquarters in Islamabad. Local news sources were tight-lipped on the agenda, most merely saying that the two sides "discussed matters of professional interest". Indeed.
One interesting visit was to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. Here O and his party toured several factories, where according to the Pakistan News Service "they were explained the [sic] different processes involved in the rebuilding of life-exhausted aircraft". North Korea has an awful lot of those. What on paper looks like a fearsome arsenal of hundreds of jet fighters belies the reality that most are aging Soviet MiGs going back to the 1960s or even the 1950s - more suited to museums than dogfights.
But all this matters much less than weapons of mass destruction (WMD). WMD means three things: nuclear bombs, which Pyongyang probably has; chemical and biological weapons (CBW), which it certainly has but no one talks about; and missiles to deliver both these nasties. Currently it is missiles, both as a local threat (eg to Japan) and globally if proliferated to hot spots such as the Middle East and South Asia, which head the US agenda. That's why Clinton tried to cut a missile deal with Kim Jong-il. All this is a valid concern independently of the push of President George W Bush for national missile defense (NMD): a nonsense which even North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies reject, and which the Republican loss of control in the Senate will hopefully now curb.
But back to the Pakistan connection, which is intriguing. Until recently, North Korea's main missile customers were the usual suspects in the Middle East: foes of the West such as Libya - which took a fresh delivery earlier this year - and Iran, which on May 31 successfully tested a new small missile called Fateh. That may be a Chinese design; but the bigger Shahab-3 which Tehran tested last year, whose 1,300 kilometer range could reach Israel, is thought to be based on North Korea's medium-range Taepodong.
But Pakistan is meant to be different. For decades it was a close US ally. In the 1980s the CIA used Islamabad to funnel vast amounts of arms and cash to Afghans fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. Dick Armitage was up to his eyeballs in all that, so he knows his Pakistani intelligence. Today, the folks he funded sustain the vile Taliban - who besides harboring Osama bin Laden are killing their own country and people on a scale that makes Kim Jong-il look like a saint. Such are history's ironies.
That's one reason why Washington is now belatedly shifting towards backing India instead. Delhi, as you might expect, is eager to play up its rival's rogue connections. The Times of India named names: Ashfaq Ahmad Khan, who recently retired as head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission; and Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as the father of Pakistan's bomb. In 1999 the paper reported a 1995 deal between a North Korean firm, Changgwang Sinyong (CSC), and Khan Research Laboratories. CSC is an arm of the DPRK's Fourth Machine Industry Bureau of the Second Economic Committee - which means it's military. Few doubt that Pakistan's Ghauri-III missile is essentially a North Korean design.
Was nuclear know-how the quid pro quo? It looks like it - and two years ago we nearly got to find out. On June 9, 1999, Kim Sa-nae, wife of a senior DPRK diplomat, was shot dead in Islamabad just a week after Pakistan's first nuclear tests. Her husband Kang Thae-yun - who as economic counselor in the embassy worked for CSC - disappeared soon afterward. Both were close to Abdul Qadeer Khan. The mystery remains unsolved, but the suspicion is that either or both had planned to defect and reveal all.
Who else might spill the beans? It's thought that the nukes for missiles relationship was first forged by the then Pakistani premier (later deposed) Benazir Bhutto, on a visit to Pyongyang a decade ago. Now in vocal opposition, in May Ms Bhutto paid a low-key visit to Seoul. One wonders what she told them.