THE COLD TEST
by SEYMOUR M. HERSH
What the Administration knew about Pakistan and the North Korean nuclear program.
NEW YORKER MAGAZINE - Issue of 2003-01-27
Last June, four months before the current crisis over North Korea became public, the Central Intelligence Agency delivered a comprehensive analysis of North Korea's nuclear ambitions to President Bush and his top advisers. The document, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, was classified as Top Secret S.C.I. (for "sensitive compartmented information"), and its distribution within the government was tightly restricted. The C.I.A. report made the case that North Korea had been violating international law—and agreements with South Korea and the United States—by secretly obtaining the means to produce weapons-grade uranium.
The document's most politically sensitive information, however, was about Pakistan. Since 1997, the C.I.A. said, Pakistan had been sharing sophisticated technology, warhead-design information, and weapons-testing data with the Pyongyang regime. Pakistan, one of the Bush Administration's important allies in the war against terrorism, was helping North Korea build the bomb.
In 1985, North Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which led to the opening of most of its nuclear sites to international inspection. By the early nineteen-nineties, it became evident to American intelligence agencies and international inspectors that the North Koreans were reprocessing more spent fuel than they had declared, and might have separated enough plutonium, a reactor by-product, to fabricate one or two nuclear weapons. The resulting diplomatic crisis was resolved when North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, entered into an agreement with the Clinton Administration to stop the nuclear-weapons program in return for economic aid and the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors that, under safeguards, would generate electricity.
Within three years, however, North Korea had begun using a second method to acquire fissile material. This time, instead of using spent fuel, scientists were trying to produce weapons-grade uranium from natural uranium—with Pakistani technology. One American intelligence official, referring to the C.I.A. report, told me, "It points a clear finger at the Pakistanis. The technical stuff is crystal clear—not hedged and not ambivalent." Referring to North Korea's plutonium project in the early nineteen-nineties, he said, "Before, they were sneaking." Now "it's off the wall. We know they can do a lot more and a lot more quickly."
North Korea is economically isolated; one of its main sources of export income is arms sales, and its most sought-after products are missiles. And one of its customers has been Pakistan, which has a nuclear arsenal of its own but needs the missiles to more effectively deliver the warheads to the interior of its rival, India. In 1997, according to the C.I.A. report, Pakistan began paying for missile systems from North Korea in part by sharing its nuclear-weapons secrets. According to the report, Pakistan sent prototypes of high-speed centrifuge machines to North Korea. And sometime in 2001 North Korean scientists began to enrich uranium in significant quantities. Pakistan also provided data on how to build and test a uranium-triggered nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. report said.
It had taken Pakistan a decade of experimentation, and a substantial financial investment, before it was able to produce reliable centrifuges; with Pakistan's help, the North Koreans had "chopped many years off" the development process, the intelligence official noted. It is not known how many centrifuges are now being operated in North Korea or where the facilities are. (They are assumed to be in underground caves.) The Pakistani centrifuges, the official said, are slim cylinders, roughly six feet in height, that could be shipped "by the hundreds" in cargo planes. But, he added, "all Pakistan would have to do is give the North Koreans the blueprints. They are very sophisticated in their engineering." And with a few thousand centrifuges, he said, "North Korea could have enough fissile material to manufacture two or three warheads a year, with something left over to sell."
A former senior Pakistani official told me that his government's contacts with North Korea increased dramatically in 1997; the Pakistani economy had foundered, and there was "no more money" to pay for North Korean missile support, so the Pakistani government began paying for missiles by providing "some of the know-how and the specifics." Pakistan helped North Korea conduct a series of "cold tests," simulated nuclear explosions, using natural uranium, which are necessary to determine whether a nuclear device will detonate properly. Pakistan also gave the North Korean intelligence service advice on "how to fly under the radar," as the former official put it—that is, how to hide nuclear research from American satellites and U.S. and South Korean intelligence agents.
Whether North Korea had actually begun to build warheads was not known at the time of the 1994 crisis and is still not known today, according to the C.I.A. report. The report, those who have read it say, included separate and contradictory estimates from the C.I.A., the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Department of Energy regarding the number of warheads that North Korea might have been capable of making, and provided no consensus on whether or not the Pyongyang regime is actually producing them.
Over the years, there have been sporadic reports of North Korea's contacts with Pakistan, most of them concerning missile sales. Much less has been known about nuclear ties. In the past decade, American intelligence tracked at least thirteen visits to North Korea made by A. Q. Khan, who was then the director of a Pakistani weapons-research laboratory, and who is known as the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb. This October, after news of the uranium program came out, the Times ran a story suggesting that Pakistan was a possible supplier of centrifuges to North Korea. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's leader, attacked the account as "absolutely baseless," and added, "There is no such thing as collaboration with North Korea in the nuclear area." The White House appeared to take the Musharraf statement at face value. In November, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters he had been assured by Musharraf that Pakistan was not currently engaging in any nuclear transactions with North Korea. "I have made clear to him that any . . . contact between Pakistan and North Korea we believe would be improper, inappropriate, and would have consequences," Powell said. "President Musharraf understands the seriousness of the issue." After that, Pakistan quickly faded from press coverage of the North Korea story.
The Bush Administration may have few good options with regard to Pakistan, given the country's role in the war on terror. Within two weeks of September 11th, Bush lifted the sanctions that had been imposed on Pakistan because of its nuclear-weapons activities. In the view of American disarmament experts, the sanctions had in any case failed to deal with one troubling issue: the close ties between some scientists working for the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and radical Islamic groups. "There is an awful lot of Al Qaeda sympathy within Pakistan's nuclear program," an intelligence official told me. One American nonproliferation expert said, "Right now, the most dangerous country in the world is Pakistan. If we're incinerated next week, it'll be because of H.E.U."—highly enriched uranium—"that was given to Al Qaeda by Pakistan."
Pakistan's relative poverty could pose additional risks. In early January, a Web-based Pakistani-exile newspaper opposed to the Musharraf government reported that, in the past six years, nine nuclear scientists had emigrated from Pakistan—apparently in search of better pay—and could not be located.
An American intelligence official I spoke with called Pakistan's behavior the "worst nightmare" of the international arms-control community: a Third World country becoming an instrument of proliferation. "The West's primary control of nuclear proliferation was based on technology denial and diplomacy," the official said. "Our fear was, first, that a Third World country would develop nuclear weapons indigenously; and, second, that it would then provide the technology to other countries. This is profound. It changes the world." Pakistan's nuclear program flourished in the nineteen-eighties, at a time when its military and intelligence forces were working closely with the United States to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The official said, "The transfer of enrichment technology by Pakistan is a direct outgrowth of the failure of the United States to deal with the Pakistani program when we could have done so. We've lost control."
The C.I.A. report remained unpublicized throughout the summer and early fall, as the Administration concentrated on laying the groundwork for a war with Iraq. Many officials in the Administration's own arms-control offices were unaware of the report. "It was held very tightly," an official told me. "Compartmentalization is used to protect sensitive sources who can get killed if their information is made known, but it's also used for controlling sensitive information for political reasons."
One American nonproliferation expert said that, given the findings in the June report, he was dismayed that the Administration had not made the information available. "It's important to convey to the American people that the North Korean situation presented us with an enormous military and political crisis," he said. "This goes to the heart of North Asian security, to the future of Japan and South Korea, and to the future of the broader issue of nonproliferation."
A Japanese diplomat who has been closely involved in Korean affairs defended the Bush Administration's delay in publicly dealing with the crisis. Referring to the report, he said, "If the intelligence assessment was correct, you have to think of the implications. Disclosure of information is not always instant. You need some time to assess the content." He added, "To have a dialogue, you really have to find the right time and the right conditions. So far, President Bush has done the right thing, from our perspective." (The White House and the C.I.A. did not respond to requests for comment.)
President Bush's contempt for the North Korean government is well known, and makes the White House's failure to publicize the C.I.A. report or act on it all the more puzzling. In his State of the Union address in January of last year, Bush cited North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of the "axis of evil." Bob Woodward, in "Bush at War," his book about the Administration's response to September 11th, recalls an interview at the President's Texas ranch in August: " 'I loathe Kim Jong Il!' Bush shouted, waving his finger in the air. 'I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people.' " Woodward wrote that the President had become so emotional while speaking about Kim Jong Il that "I thought he might jump up."
The Bush Administration was put on notice about North Korea even before it received the C.I.A. report. In January of last year, John Bolton, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control, declared that North Korea had a covert nuclear-weapons program and was in violation of the nonproliferation treaty. In February, the President was urged by three members of Congress to withhold support for the two reactors promised to North Korea, on the ground that the Pyongyang government was said to be operating a secret processing site "for the enrichment of uranium." In May, Bolton again accused North Korea of failing to coöperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the group responsible for monitoring treaty compliance. Nevertheless, on July 5th the President's national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who presumably had received the C.I.A. report weeks earlier, made it clear in a letter to the congressmen that the Bush Administration would continue providing North Korea with shipments of heavy fuel oil and nuclear technology for the two promised energy-generating reactors.
The Administration's fitful North Korea policy, with its mixture of anger and seeming complacency, is in many ways a consequence of its unrelenting focus on Iraq. Late last year, the White House released a national-security-strategy paper authorizing the military "to detect and destroy an adversary's WMD assets"—weapons of mass destruction—"before these weapons are used." The document argued that the armed forces "must have the capability to defend against WMD-armed adversaries . . . because deterrence may not succeed." Logically, the new strategy should have applied first to North Korea, whose nuclear-weapons program remains far more advanced than Iraq's. The Administration's goal, however, was to mobilize public opinion for an invasion of Iraq. One American intelligence official told me, "The Bush doctrine says MAD"—mutual assured destruction—"will not work for these rogue nations, and therefore we have to preëmpt if negotiations don't work. And the Bush people knew that the North Koreans had already reinvigorated their programs and were more dangerous than Iraq. But they didn't tell anyone. They have bankrupted their own policy—thus far—by not doing what their doctrine calls for."
Iraq's military capacity has been vitiated by its defeat in the Gulf War and years of inspections, but North Korea is one of the most militarized nations in the world, with more than forty per cent of its population under arms. Its artillery is especially fearsome: more than ten thousand guns, along with twenty-five hundred rocket launchers capable of launching five hundred thousand shells an hour, are positioned within range of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The Pentagon has estimated that all-out war would result in more than a million military and civilian casualties, including as many as a hundred thousand Americans killed. A Clinton Administration official recalled attending a congressional briefing in the mid-nineties at which Army General Gary Luck, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, laconically said, "Senator, I could win this one for you—but not right away."
In early October, James A. Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, flew to Pyongyang with a large entourage for a showdown over the uranium-enrichment program. The agenda was, inevitably, shaped by officials' awareness of the President's strong personal views. "There was a huge fight over whether to give the North Koreans an ultimatum or to negotiate," one American expert on Korea told me. "Which is the same fight they're having now." Kelly was authorized to tell the Koreans that the U.S. had learned about the illicit uranium program, but his careful instructions left him no room to negotiate. His scripted message was blunt: North Korea must stop the program before any negotiations could take place. "This is a sad tale of bureaucracy," another American expert said. "The script Kelly had was written in the N.S.C."—the National Security Council—"by hard-liners. I don't think the President wanted a crisis at this time." The C.I.A. report had predicted that North Korea, if confronted with the evidence, would not risk an open break with the 1994 agreement and would do nothing to violate the nonproliferation treaty. "It was dead wrong," an intelligence officer told me. "I hope there are other people in the agency who understand the North Koreans better than the people who wrote this."
"The Koreans were stunned," a Japanese diplomat who spoke to some of the participants told me. "They didn't know that the U.S. knew what it knew." After an all-night caucus in Pyongyang, Kang Suk Ju, the First Vice Foreign Minister of North Korea, seemed to confirm the charge when he responded by insisting upon his nation's right to develop nuclear weapons. What he didn't talk about was whether it actually had any. Kang Suk Ju also accused the United States, the Japanese diplomat said, of "threatening North Korea's survival." Kang then produced a list of the United States' alleged failures to meet its own obligations under the 1994 agreement, and offered to shut down the enrichment program in return for an American promise not to attack and a commitment to normalize relations. Kelly, constrained by his instructions, could only re-state his brief: the North Koreans must act first. The impasse was on.
But, as with the June C.I.A. report, the Administration kept quiet about the Pyongyang admission. It did not inform the public until October 16th, five days after Congress voted to authorize military force against Iraq. Even then, according to Administration sources quoted in the Washington Post, the Administration went public only after learning that the North Korean admission—with obvious implications for the debate on Iraq—was being leaked to the press. On the CBS program "Face the Nation" on October 20th, Condoleezza Rice denied that news of the Kelly meeting had been deliberately withheld until after the vote. President Bush, she said, simply hadn't been presented with options until October 15th. "What was surprising to us was not that there was a program," Rice said. "What was surprising to us was that the North Koreans admitted there was a program."
"Did we want them to deny it?" a former American intelligence expert on North Korea asked me afterward. He said, "I could never understand what was going on with the North Korea policy." Referring to relations between the intelligence service and the Bush Administration, he said, "We couldn't get people's attention, and, even if we could, they never had a sensible approach. The Administration was deeply, viciously ideological." It was contemptuous not only of the Pyongyang government but of earlier efforts by the Clinton White House to address the problem of nuclear proliferation—a problem that could only get worse if Washington ignored it. The former intelligence official told me, "When it came time to confront North Korea, we had no plan, no contact—nothing to negotiate with. You have to be in constant diplomatic contact, so you can engage and be in the strongest position to solve the problem. But we let it all fall apart."
The former intelligence official added, referring to the confrontation in North Korea in October, "The Kelly meeting and the subsequent American statement have tipped the balance in Pyongyang. The North Koreans were already terrifically suspicious of the United States. They saw the Kelly message as 'When you fix this, get back to us.' They were very angry. That, plus the fact that they feel they are next in line after Iraq, made them believe they had to act very quickly to protect themselves."
The result was that in October, as in June, the Administration had no option except to deny that there was a crisis. When the first published reports of the Kelly meeting appeared, a White House spokesman said that the President found it to be "troubling, sobering news." Rice repeatedly emphasized that North Korea and Iraq were separate cases. "Saddam Hussein is in a category by himself," Rice said on ABC's "Nightline." One arms-control official told me, "The White House didn't want to deal with a second crisis."
In the following months, the American policy alternated between tough talk in public—vows that the Administration wouldn't be "blackmailed," or even meet with North Korean leaders—and private efforts, through third parties, to open an indirect line of communication with Pyongyang. North Korea, meanwhile, expelled international inspectors, renounced the nonproliferation treaty, and threatened to once again begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuel—all the while insisting on direct talks with the Bush Administration.
One Clinton Administration official who was involved in the 1994 talks with Kim Jong Il acknowledged that he felt deeply disappointed by the North Korean actions. "The deal was that we'd give them two reactors and they, in turn, have to knock off this shit," he said. "They've got something going, and it's in violation of the deal." Nonetheless, the official said, the Bush Administration "has got to talk to Kim Jong Il." Despite the breakdown of the 1994 agreement, and despite the evidence of cheating, the C.I.A. report depicted the agreement as a success insofar as over the past eight years it had prevented North Korea from building warheads—as many as a hundred, according to some estimates.
Last week, President Bush gave in to what many of his advisers saw as the inevitable and agreed to consider renewed American aid in return for a commitment by North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. However, the White House was still resisting direct negotiations with the Kim Jong Il government.
In a speech in June, Robert Gallucci, a diplomat who was put in charge of negotiating the 1994 agreement with Pyongyang, and who is now dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, recalled that Bush's first approach to North Korea had been to make it "a poster child" for the Administration's arguments for a missile-defense system. "This was the cutting edge of the threat against which we were planning and shaping our defense," he said. "There was a belief that North Korea was not to be dealt with by negotiation.
"But then September 11th happened, and September 11th meant that national missile defense could not defend America, because the threat was going to come not from missiles but from a hundred other ways as well," he said. "And so we've come full circle. . . . North Korea and other rogue states who threaten us with weapons of mass destruction threaten not only because they themselves might not be deterrable but because they may transfer this capability to those who can't be deterred or defended against."
One American intelligence official who has attended recent White House meetings cautioned against relying on the day-to-day Administration statements that emphasize a quick settlement of the dispute. The public talk of compromise is being matched by much private talk of high-level vindication. "Bush and Cheney want that guy's head"—Kim Jong Il's—"on a platter. Don't be distracted by all this talk about negotiations. There will be negotiations, but they have a plan, and they are going to get this guy after Iraq. He's their version of Hitler."