Jeffrey LewisAQ Khan Documents

Micah Morrison at Fox News, with the cooperation of Simon Henderson, has published the set of documents that AQ Khan provided to Henderson including (1) his so-called “confession” (which is hardly contrite and probably better described as a “statement“), (2) An ISI report, presumably for foreign governments in lieu of access to Khan himself, on Khan’s activities that is revealing in its many ommissions and elisions, (3) the oft-discussed letter to his wife, Hendrina.

Morrison also published a few photos, a response by Jehangir Karamat to Khan’s allegations that he accepted a bribe, as well as some correspondence with the Governments of China and Iran.

I am glad to finally see the documents in print.  (I missed the broadcast, but that is just because I don’t watch television.) The documents clear up at least one minor mystery and shed considerable light on Khan’s motives, which helps make the case for putting them into the public domain.

The documents may not be reliable, but boy are they interesting!

The minor mystery is, well, minor.

Simon Henderson and I disagreed on an issue related to the broader question of whether North Korean officials really showed AQ Khan three nuclear weapons.  I said North Korea didn’t have enough fissile material, while Henderson referred me to one of his articles stating that North Korea “is already sitting on a stockpile of highly enriched uranium courtesy of Stalin, the Soviet leader.”

I didn’t find that statement credible and asked about its provenance. “Is this yet another of Khan’s assertions in these documents?” I wrote. “If so, this further undermines his credibility and demonstrates the need to place these documents in the public record to allow others to examine their contents.”

So, now we have the actual sentence from Khan’s statement:  North Korea “had also manufactured a few weapons as, according to Gen. Kang’s boss, they had received Kg 200 plutonium and weapon designs from the Russians in the mid-fifties after the Korean War.”

So, this is interesting.  First, Khan is repeating a claim by a senior North Korean official, probably Jon Byong Ho. Second, the material in question turns out to be plutonium, not highly enriched uranium.  Third, the alleged transfer occurred after the Korean War, which would also mean after Stalin’s death. (Stalin’s death in March 1953 is usually cited as a significant factor leading to the July 1953 armistice that marks the “end” of the Korean War. In any event, Stalin died first.)

Henderson was simply mistaken about the type of the material and the date of the transfer.  (Or Khan told the story differently in some document we do not have.) Such mistakes are innocent enough.  Indeed, Henderson was instrumental in releasing the documents and there is no advantage to be gained from misidentifying the type of fissile material.

Yet, this detail — the fact that the alleged material was plutonium, not highly enriched uranium — is important. If one has qualms about the wisdom of releasing documents that may contain exaggerations or falsehoods, consider this a case study in how openness can help shed light on Khan’s motives.

Thanks to Anatoli Diakov’s excellent article, The History of Plutonium Production in Russia, we have reasonably accurate estimates of Soviet plutonium production during the 1950s.

Two-hundred kilograms of plutonium is a lot of plutonium — 25 significant quantities.  It was also a significant fraction of Russia’s annual plutonium production during the 1950s.  (In 1955, Russia produced 349 kilograms of plutonium. At the time, processing losses were about 13 percent, so 200 kilograms of separated plutonium would represent two-thirds of Russia’s plutonium production from that year.  Even as Russia brought additional reactors online through the 1950s, Russia produced only 1210 kilograms of plutonium in 1959. Again, with 13 percent process losses, turning over 200 kilograms of would have represented nearly 20 percent of Russia’s plutonium production that year.)

A 200 kilogram transfer of plutonium in the mid-1950s seems very unlikely.  (It is hard to cost the production of 200 kilograms of plutonium to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, but it would have been astronomical.) Moreover, scholarly accounts based on Soviet historical archives — such as Georgiy Kaurov, A Technical History of Soviet-North Korean Nuclear Relations and Balazs Szalontai and Sergey Radchenko, North Korea’s Efforts to Acquire Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Weapons: Evidence from Russian and Hungarian Archives — ought to at least contain a hint of such a transfer.  They do not.  On the contrary, the timeline of known technical cooperation and documentary evidence regarding motive are both wholly inconsistent with the idea of a significant transfer of plutonium in the mid-1950s.

It would seem that such a transfer is, on face, simply not credible. Overall, Khan’s repetition of the claim seems to support the hypothesis that Khan would say just about anything to evade responsibility for his nuclear commerce.  “I didn’t do it.  If I did, I only gave them junk.  It doesn’t matter, anyway, because they already had the bomb. Blame Khrushchev.”

Releasing the documents opens Khan’s various assertions, and differing versions of events, to this sort of scrutiny.  I am grateful that Henderson and Morrison have enriched our conversation by placing these documents in the public domain.


  1. Jan (History)

    June 2011 interview with AQ Khan in Der Spiegel (English)
    ‘Khan: I did not indulge in proliferation and there is no such thing as an “A.Q. Khan Network.” ‘

    full interview with further interesting statements:,1518,770746,00.html

  2. Anon (History)

    Time magazine has a good piece by Ebin Harrel on the AQK network and the difficulty of prosecution. [“Nuclear Proliferation: The Crime with No Punishment?”]

    More interestingly, the inner working of AQK must have been well known to the likes of Rich Barlow but his protestations evidently were put down to make sure Pakistan stays on board with opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan (remember when it was their Vietnam?).

    So, in a way, was not the USG an enabler of AQK? see, e.g.:

    I’d ammend the quote ““I didn’t do it. If I did, I only gave them junk. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because they already had the bomb. Blame Khruschev.” to read “I didn’t do it. If I did, I only gave them junk. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because the American let me. Blame Ray-gun.”

  3. krepon (History)

    Classic AQK: truth and fiction intermingled. The Soviet transfer to North Korea at a time of intense fear and nuclear competition with the USA strains credulity.

    Jeffrey: Have reports of this transfer ever been in the public domain?

    “Upon my personal request, the Chinese Minister for Nuclear Technology had gifted us Kg 50 of weapon-grade enriched uranium, enough for 2 weapons. This gift clearly illustrates the importance the Chinese attached to the enrichment technology they received from me. I had asked for this to neutralize Indian nuclear blackmail and the imminent security threat to our country.”

    • John Schilling (History)

      “Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?”

      50 kilos of HEU does not quite a Doomsday Machine make, but the point remains. In order to neutralize Indian nuclear blackmail, etc, the Indians at least have to know about it. And the Chinese would know that Pakistan’s interests are only served by telling the Indians, at which point it is difficult to imagine any party to this supposed transaction imagining that it is going to be kept secret.

      If this is the first time we’ve heard of it, I would wager that is because it is the first time Khan decided to add that particular element to his self-serving fairy tale.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Khan is the only source. This document was the source for a story by Jeff Smith and Joby Warrick, entitled Pakistani nuclear scientist’s accounts tell of Chinese proliferation.

      What is interesting, though, is that Post story is sourced exclusively to “accounts written by the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, and provided to The Washington Post.”

      Yet there are little details in the story that do not appear in the documents that we have seen so far. Details like: the date of the shipment as 1982, the fact that the shipment originated in Urumqi (rather than near one of China’s sites for enriching uranium), the fact that the shipment of uranium metal occurred in five lead-lined, stainless-steel boxes each containing 10 single-kilogram ingots, or the details of Khan’s fine meal of barbecued lamb.

      Moreover, two quotes that appear in the story by the Post do not appear in the documents just released: The quote that Mohammed Zia ul-Haq “was worried” and the statement that the Chinese conveyed that the HEU loaned earlier was now to be considered as a gift … in gratitude” for Pakistani help.

      It seems there are many more documents out there.

      I don’t find it implausible that China might have shipped such a modest amount of HEU to Pakistan.

    • John Schilling (History)

      That China might have shipped 50kg of HEU to Pakistan is not implausible, I agree. That it would not have been leaked before now seems less plausible. And then there’s the bit where this is essentially a private agreement between the government of China and A.Q. Khan, for services rendered. That defies credibility.

      More documents? Yes, please. Preferably documents not authored by A.Q. Khan, if we can get them.

  4. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Can anything originating with Faux News be anything but fiction? Is there any person associated with Rupert Murdoch who is honest and reliable?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      One thing I always try to do on this blog is refer to the author or the reporter. Just because someone works for Fox News (which I admit I find editorially unappealing) doesn’t mean he or she is incompetent or deceitful.

      Working at the New York Times doesn’t make a reporter insightful and responsible.

      Putting the documents in the public domain is a valuable contribution. I don’t see any reason to believe that the documents were tampered with. They are the same documents to which the Post had access.

      So what’s the problem?

  5. Alex W. (History)

    My recollection is that one of the things pointed out in John Lewis Gaddis’s _The Cold War: A New History_ (2005) is that the Soviets, Stalin in particular, were actually not terribly enthusiastic about the North Koreans, and had to be somewhat badgered into the war in the first place. It seems fairly unlikely to me that they’d turn around from this and decide that 200 kg of Pu was an good thing to give them.

    I also think the point about how much Pu 200 kg is in the 1950s is an important one. The USSR had only been producing plutonium for a few years at that point. The US had just embarked on a major production increase (and had been public about this fact). The Soviet nuclear arsenal was still quite tiny by later standards — a 120 weapons or so — and their delivery mechanisms were poor. It seems rather ridiculous to think that they’d give the equivalent of 15% of their arsenal away to North Korea, at a time when the US had 10X the atomic bombs *and* had recently detonated a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb prototype.

    Even more so if what they’re giving away is just fissile material and not actual bombs. What use would it have served? It was not an easy task to make an implosion bomb in 1953, even if you knew what you were doing.

    It strikes me as something that is either terribly mixed up (e.g. a reality of 200 g of radioactive tracers morphs over time into a memory of 200 kg of plutonium), or terribly silly. In either case it is so improbable and implausible on the face of it that it would require some really extraordinary evidence to take seriously.

    • Anon (History)

      The most rational supposition is that AQK faked the letter to cover his behind.

      “Darling, …[let me put down in words everything I can concoct to cover my ass, after the fact, and send it to Faux News]…”

      That is not to say that the Pakistan government was not complicit — it was.

      But can anyone address if it is illegal for a non-NPT state to proliferate?

      [I understand it is illegal for the NPT-signatories to receive or proliferate further, but is it illegal for GOP to do so from a narrow legal perspective?

      e.g. Would it be OK for Israel and India to engage in nuclear trade and proliferation if limited to just those 2 non-NPT states?]