Jeffrey LewisMemo from Jon Byong Ho

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.


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.


  1. Anon (History)

    All in all not a huge surprise to those who know how the Pakistani govt works: as a personal fiefdom of the elite military-industrial-NCA (National Command Authority — nukes r us) complex there. A Q Khan was both part of, and independent of, the government.

    Plus, the real “government” in Pakistan has always been the military + NCA +ISI — not the civ’s in Islamabad.

  2. Peter Hayes (History)

    One small point: two actually. No, three.
    First thing that struck me was the date. The DPRK introduced the juche dating system a year before, in July 1997 but this letter doesn’t use it.

    Everything we got at that time was dated dutifully with juche date (often with the restoftheworld date noted helpfully in parentheses, to make sure we didn’t get confused).

    Second, would a top North Korean ever put such statements about payoffs in writing to someone they don’t control? If they did, they would do it more so as to be able to threaten later to release it, and thereby exert some control, rather than to be communicative. So it’s possible but still doesn’t look-feel right to me. Why would Jon casually refer to these payments? Nothing changes as a result of the letter, and understandings about such transactions would typically be verbal to ensure that other parts of the NK control system cannot monitor the flows, $ and informational.

    Third, the tonality of the text doesn’t feel right to me…it seems to be written by someone whose first language is English, but who knows the DPRK and Pakistan situation with regard to exchanges, the assassination etc in detail. There are many North Koreans who write and speak near perfect Oxfordian English (far fewer the American dialect). Even in their Kanglish, there is still a stilted tonality. This letter feels to me like it was written with someone with English as a first language (typical in the Pakistani elite), mimicking what they have read in correspondence with the NKs.

    Of course, if someone has a signature for Mr. Jon to compare, that would be stronger confirmation.

    Bottom line: possible, but not yet assuredly authentic.

    That leaves 3 possibilities:

    1. the letter is real and they are more careless at the top than one might think–or more arrogant. They are also immune to the ideological imperatives re dating…not a small issue in North Korea.
    2. the letter is forged by Khan’s mates in some kind of internal power struggle in Pakistan.
    3. the letter is forged by a 3rd party (eg someone from the ROK with the requisite knowledge of the DPRK and motivation…)…but the intermediary says he got it from Khan, so that seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

    Meaning, it’s 1 or 2.

    • Anon (History)

      I fully agree. The letter may well be fake.

      Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is absolutely NO WAY AQK could indulge in the types of trades he did without some sort of sanction from both civilian and military branches on the Pakistani government. It is a convenient myth to say he was a lone wolf: allows the USG to continue to pump $ into Islamabad while tut-tut-ing to AQK.

      That said, the letter indeed feels overwrought.

      e.g. Why would a elite NK say specifically a PAF **Boeing** aircraft when the PAF only had like 3 707s and many C-130s? Why would a high level Nork be that specific — or even, how could he possibly be that specific!?

      The letter is almost certainly a fake, but it is trying to tell the correct story about how GOP and AQK worked.

      WINEPs involvement with the story doesn’t make believing this letter any easier.

  3. krepon (History)

    Does anybody else find it odd that the letter lumps the ISI along with the CIA? AQ Khan has issues with both agencies. Does the DPRK have issues with the ISI?

  4. John Bragg (History)

    I don’t know if the letter is authentic or not. But, from the text of the letter, the North Koreans certainly had a beef with the ISI at the time. The ISI had been apparently been involved in murdering the wife of General Kang, and attempting to murder General Kang.

    Non-Pakistanis tend to get upset when the ISI murders their countrymen.

    The speculation about KCIA-CIA-ISI connections to the murder are probably not checkable in any way, but this might be checkable:

    “I have come to hear that the murderer was set free by the ISI after just a short time.”

  5. JYD (History)

    From my understanding of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear procurement/export activities in the 1990s, the ISI was more closely involved with the PAEC, which was AQK’s rival. The PAEC got its foreign inputs from China, which was and still remains sub rosa for the most part. While AQK cultivated many individuals within the military and bureaucracy, he was seen as a fraud by those that saw themselves as the “real” nuclear program owners.

    At the time this NoDong-Centrifuge barter occurred, AQK’s rivals were perfecting the Chinese origin Shaheen & Ghaznavi missile systems and AQK had to produce a credible nuke delivery system before them to maintain his image. He probably figured that buying whole missiles and “testing” them quickly was the best way to that end and selling centrifuge tech and his supplier rolodex was an affordable price to pay.

    Net net, given that AQK’s rivals were associated with the ISI, it is not suprising that he believed that the spooks would try to undercut his glory seeking efforts. Plus, the ISI at the time had gotten a bad name in the anti-American community for handing over Pakistani fugitives to the US without worrying about legal due process.

    • Mansoor Ahmed (History)

      PAEC kept the Army and the ISI at bay and all fuel cycle, civil and nuclear weapon projects remained under the direct control of the Chairman PAEC. This was a policy which was clearly introduced and implemented by Munir Ahmad Khan from 1972-91, and respected by Gen. Zia and continued till the formation of the NCA/SPD in 2001 and followed by his successor All foreign procurements for PAEC were made through S A Butt and other PAEC procurement officials posted in Europe and elswehere during the formative and subsequent years of the program, including the Kahuta project.

      However, the Army/ISI was more heavily involved with the centrifuge project as opposed to several other projects under PAEC, especially following the Kahuta project’s separation from PAEC in 1977, whereafter, the procurement chain for KRL was also separated from the PAEC chain. A Q Khan has specified the Army’s role with the centrifuge project in his latest weekly column in The News.

      The Army remained involved with PAEC and KRL mostly in physical security, civil works and air defences etc only to the extent to which such support was asked and directed by either the Chairman of PAEC or A Q Khan- Project Director for KRL.

  6. Amy (History)

    I think you may have inadvertently fallen into the propaganda trap laid by A Q Khan. (As has a lot of Western Press).

    What little evidence there is about the murder of the North Korean’s wife points to it being a job by the NK’s own security services — not the ISI or the CIA or the South Koreans.

    Dexter Filkins — a trusted and legendary reporter — filed this report with LA Times at the time (well a year later) of the incident — you will note how the chameleon A Q Khan is then on the opposite side of the fence:

    “”I spoke with our intelligence agencies, and they said it was an accident,” said Abdul Qadeer Khan, the head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. “You Americans always try to put the blame on us.”

    Other officials say the truth about Kim’s death is more sinister. Some familiar with the case say that she was killed on purpose–probably by her own government–because she was spilling secrets about North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs or because she was planning to defect.

    “She was murdered,” said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

    Kim’s death has thrown new light on the military connection between Pakistan and North Korea–at a time when the Stalinist regime is reportedly planning to launch a long-range missile capable of hitting Alaska.”

    So the this letter appears to be a fabrication.

    – Not really Amy.

    • Amy (History)

      See also:

      “Kim was shot at point-blank range, a few yards from Khan’s house in the neighborhood known as E-7, a senior police officer said in an interview.

      Kim previously has been described as the wife of a mid-ranking North Korean diplomat. But present and former staff members at Khan Research Laboratories, or KRL, the Pakistani scientist’s weapons development facility about 20 miles southeast of Islamabad, say that was a cover story.

      The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Kim was part of a 20-member delegation of North Korean engineers and scientists whom Khan had invited to witness Pakistan’s first underground nuclear tests on May 28, 1998, and to learn how to enrich uranium for a North Korean bomb, the Pakistani officials said.

      There has long been speculation that Kim was killed by her own government because she was suspected of spying for the United States or another Western power. Officials in both Pakistan and rival India, whose intelligence services closely monitor Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, backed that version of events.

      A Pakistani official said his country’s intelligence agents suspected that the United States was using Kim as a mole inside the North Korean delegation, but that her actions were uncovered by Pakistani and North Korean agents.

      An Indian official who is familiar with his government’s assessment of the killing said bluntly: “She was in fact killed by the North Koreans on the grounds that she was in touch with certain Western diplomats.” A Pakistani intelligence source said Kim and the rest of the North Korean delegation was staying in a guest house in the compound of Khan’s home when Kim was killed. ”

      – Woodchuck101

  7. Mark Fitzpatrick (History)

    In addition to the other suspicious aspects the the letter, two small usage oddities also make me wonder about its authenticity:
    1) The repeated unnecessary use of the Present progressive tense (“I am hoping”) in my experience is more akin to South Asian usage than what those schooled in British or American English would use.
    2) The absence of an apostrophe in “Korean Workers’ Party” is not something I have seen in any communication from North Korea.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That missing apostrophe is bothering the hell out of me.

  8. Arch (History)

    I can’t resist:

    I want to know more, much more, about Jon Byomb Hovi.

    Happy Friday! Great post and thread.

  9. Melissa (History)

    In addition to all the good comments above — particularly the lack of Juche date — I’ve never known an East Asian to cross a seven. I’m not a handwriting specialist, but I tend to think of that as a European trend.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Do you know a lot of East Asians who attended Moscow State University?

    • Anon (History)

      true, but hand writing style is usually set in by high school.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Unless you learn Arabic numerals at University because you went to high school in Japanese-occupied Korea.

  10. Anon (History)

    Nukes of Hazard has a smart commentary on the matter:

  11. krepon (History)

    Gen. Zulfikar Ali Khan’s denial, as reported in Dawn:

    “Before making any comments on the substance of the article, I must emphasize that the whole story has not an iota of truth but a fabrication of a mischievous mind. It is now a well known and admitted fact that this by itself is a full fledged subject meriting separate treatment,” he said.

    “Coming to the substance of the article in the Washington Post; it relies mainly on a so-called letter said to have been written by a North Korean official to Dr A Q Khan in 1998. This letter is absolutely void of authenticity and credibility for the following reasons:

    He said it is not on any letter head; Bonafides of the signature/signing person are not known; It mentions a combined and co-ordinated operation in Pakistan by the CIA, the South Korean Intelligence and the ISI that is incomprehensible and mind-boggling; “The reference about myself in the so-called letter from North Korea does not exist in the eleven page account given by Dr A Q Khan to Mr Henderson as referred to by the Washington Post.. In response to Washington Post’s queries, he pointed out that during his tenure at GHQ, no contract was concluded with North Korea by the GHQ, nor was there any dispute between the two

    Since he was not the dealing officer or, directly or indirectly connected with contracts with North Korea (if any) or the resolution of a possible dispute arising there from, the question of North Korea making any payments to him, major or minor, does not arise, he added.

    The deal commonly referred to was an agreement signed between the two governments that is Pakistan and North Korea.

    However, it was concluded much before he came to GHQ. It is public knowledge that an extensive and exhaustive inquiry was held into the allegations of nuclear proliferation and numerous people were thoroughly questioned and interrogated.

    • Anon (History)

      Thanks — Indeed, the sound of axes grinding in the letter is deafening.

  12. Magoo (History)

    Jeffrey, A very interesting piece that has engendered a very stimulating discussion.

    However, one has got so used to the consistency with which members of the American media and those testifying before Congress compete to churn out fiction is now legendary. Judging by past record one cannot but pause and take note of the Editorial in the Frontier Post [Pakistan] of July 9, 2011.

    • Anon (History)

      Magoo, Doubt this was US IC’s doing since the letter tries to implicate the CIA in the murder of the NK lady which allegedly happened in AQK’s compound, a few yards from his crib.

      The timing of the release is a bit weird: anyone know why Simon sent this to WaPo now? Simon?

      Also the bit about the “Boeing” is a bit strange: looks like AQK is going out of his way to throw the trail off of his use of PAF C-130s. Apparently a C-130 and a Boeing left for NK from Islamabad on the day in question.

      As I said, trying to read the letter is a bit difficult over the din of AQK’s axes grinding therein.

      If anyone manufactured this letter, it unlikely to be the US IC.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I believe this document was handed over with the others, but for reasons that must now be obvious, the Post needed another year to feel comfortable enough to publish it. (Note that, in the interim, Smith seems to have moved on from covering nuclear weapons issues. )

      In March 2010, in response to calls to release the documents, Smith explained in the comments to one of my posts, that there was one more story to come: The documents “are, in essence, Mr. Henderson’s to release. Those who are eager to see them are free to ring him directly. But I think he will say that you will have to wait until the final thread, not yet reported, plays out.”

      This is that final thread playing out, as it were.

      (By the way, how right-on was I in March 2010, stating that “the apparent reason that the Post won’t publish the documents is that they contain a lengthy list of likely litigious Pakistani officials whom Khan accuses of accepting bribes”?)

  13. Tom F (History)

    Just to be flippant for a moment I’m stunned no one to date has screamed “Khaaaaan!”