The Washington Post has just published its latest story by R. Jeffrey Smith based on a document supplied by A.Q. Khan to English journalist and would-be Khan biographer Simon Henderson.  This one is different – it’s not one of Khan’s confessionals, but a one-page memo to Khan from Jon Byong Ho, North Korea’s most senior missile and nuclear import-export manager.

When we last saw Mr. Jon, he was toasting a Burmese general (photo above). According to the South Korean press, he’s since been put out to pasture.

Smith and I had an, er, spirited exchange in the comments of a previous post, here. Smith doesn’t seem to be on the nukes beat much anymore, though.

Josh Pollack had some thoughts on the inner workings of the Khan network, too.

Last night, I asked a nonproliferation wonk with some insights into the Pakistani-North Korean relationship to read the Post’s story and the Jon-Khan letter and give a response.

Jeffrey:

The Post obviously has come by this remarkable document in an unusual manner, and so has gone to real trouble to authenticate it. If it arrived with the same batch of documents that were reported on earlier, then the delay hints at a protracted wrestling match over its publication. That’s understandable.

In trying to puzzle it through, our first question should be, why did A.Q. Khan supply it to Simon Henderson? Our second question should be, it is genuine?

Judging by the details in the news article, Khan provided it to buttress his claims about the role of senior Pakistani military officials in sanctioning his activities, in particular by accepting bribes from the North Koreans. Khan’s ability to send an “Airforce Boeing” plane to North Korea also points to some sort of military collaboration. Reading it closely – and I’ve read it at least five times through before setting down these thoughts – it’s also a good bet that it strokes Khan’s vanity, since it congratulates him on Pakistan’s first nuclear tests and praises his “important work.” On both counts, the letter serves to vindicate him.

But is it the real thing? The Post makes a fairly strong case that it is. There are also some details within the memo that Khan himself would not have invented, especially not recently. Here, his vanity gets the better of him, since the letter depicts him as primarily responsible for dealing with the North Koreans and shipping centrifuge parts and components abroad. This undercuts Khan’s recent claims that various foreign black-market suppliers were acting autonomously of him. Before that, Khan had taken to claiming the ISI (Pakistani Army intelligence( and SPD (the Pakistani Army’s nuclear security agency) as his former partners in crime. But the letter’s author depicts the ISI as actively interfering with Khan’s North Korean trade, even trying to assassinate Khan’s North Korean liaison official, but killing his wife instead. Why the ISI would interfere isn’t completely clear – there’s just a small hint about this — but it tends to hurt the claim that the military was really running the proliferation show.

That, incidentally, is not the story that journalists came up with about the death of Kim Sa-nae at the time. Some accounts suggested that she was really a North Korean scientist, suspected of spying for the Americans, and therefore done in by her own people. You don’t get that sense at all here. She was just the wife of Kang Thae-yun (“Gen. Kang”!), and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In sum, the letter appears authentic, both because of the largely persuasive judgment of the Post’s sources, and because of details in the text that undercut Khan’s own recent fabrications and excuses. That being so, it’s a highly embarrassing disclosure for Pakistan and another blow to U.S.-Pakistani relations, even if not on the same order as disclosures about ties between ISI figures and Lashkar-e-Taiba, or maybe the discovery of Osama bin Laden smack in the middle of the suburbs.

The single person who comes off the worst has to be former Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat, one of two senior Pakistani officials fingered as taking bribes from the North Koreans to facilitate or look the other way as Pakistani enrichment technology – URENCO enrichment technology, to put it another way – whisked off to Pyongyang or thereabouts. Since then, Karamat has become a distinguished international figure. He’s served as Islamabad’s ambassador to Washington and as a commissioner on the ICNND. That’s the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament!

Once we accept the document as genuine, reading it provides an absolutely unique glimpse into the global nuclear underworld. Here are the details that strike my eye. It’s written in pretty good English. Not perfect English, but not ridiculous KCNA English, either. That really shouldn’t come as such a huge surprise, in hindsight. There have been hints that the North Koreans market their missiles in English, labeling them “Scuds” and so forth. Khan also made his sale pitches in English – consult the “Project A.B.” document.

It’s not in any way coded. Instead, it was passed by a trusted courier, marked “By Hand.”

It was somewhat unusual at this stage of the AQ Khan-Jon Byong-ho relationship. Notice that it’s dated July 15, 1998 and numbered 1998/01. That implies that it was their first written communication of the year, an impression reinforced by the reference to Pakistan’s nuclear tests, which took place in late May. A careful reading of the document suggests that its fundamental purpose was to serve as a letter of introduction for Mr. Yon, Gen. Kang’s successor in Pakistan.

The mysterious Mr. Yon is described as having “served in Iran, Egypt, Syria and Libya.” These stand out as the four countries other than Pakistan where North Korea has helped to set up missile production lines. That’s consistent with a swap of missile tech for nuke tech. The barter is also alluded to more directly in the text: “Please give the agreed documents, components, etc., to Mr. Yon to be flown back when our plane returns after delivery of missile components.” The same plane was to carry the different goods each way!

Gen. Pervez Musharraf always insisted the missiles sent by North Korea in the mid-1990s were bought for cash, and maybe they were. But the missile factory that the North Koreans set up in Pakistan probably wasn’t.

Even the bribes to smooth the way for nuclear exports weren’t all in cash. Some were given in gemstones. That’s part of why we should think of them as bribes and not payments to the Pakistani military or the Pakistani state. First, as noted above, it looks like a swap, not a purchase. Second, a payment would go to a functionary in an office somewhere, not to two senior military men. Third, it’s hard to understand why a payment would come as a mix of cash, diamonds, and rubies, especially if it’s true that North Korea prints its own U.S. dollars. But in exchange for letting one of Pakistan’s technological crown jewels leave the country, well, that’s about as poetic as corruption gets.

Where the North Koreans might have acquired the gems is a good question: did they come at a steep discount from some cash-strapped African arms buyer? As mentioned above, the money was apparently given in American dollars. Like English, this seems to be the lingua franca of the nuclear black market, the same as any other international business.

Those are the details. The bigger picture is straightforward and eerily fascinating. Here, in the midst of the Agreed Framework period, when North Korea’s plutonium program was frozen, we get almost a firsthand glimpse of Jon Byong-ho, Kim Jong-il’s champion arms salesman and nukes acquisition specialist, going behind America’s and South Korea’s backs to acquire a different fissile material production technology, one they had forsworn in the Joint Denuclearization Declaration of 1992. And there is A.Q. Khan organizing the payment of bribes to Gen. Jehangir Karamat and Lt. Gen. Zulfiqar Khan (not to be confused with the late Air Chief Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan) so he could swap gas centrifuge technology for missile production technology.

Within no more than a year or so of this letter, Khan was already trying to sell missiles to a third country. And within a couple of years, he was organizing the shipment of North Korean uranium hexafluoride to his customers in Libya. It was a fruitful relationship for both sides.