What A.Q. Khan Knows

Either Kim Jong Il or Pervez Musharraf is lying about whether Pakistan's Dr. Strangelove, Abdul Qadeer Khan, gave centrifuges to North Korea for uranium enrichment. Unless the truth can be established, the hitherto-promising denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang are likely to collapse.

Khan has been shielded from foreign interrogators since his arrest three years ago for running a global nuclear Wal-Mart. Musharraf wrote in his memoir, "In the Line of Fire," that the former czar of Pakistan's nuclear program provided "nearly two dozen" prototype centrifuges suitable for uranium enrichment experiments to North Korea -- a charge flatly denied by Pyongyang.

"Why don't you invite A.Q. Khan to join the negotiations?" North Korea's U.N. representative, Kim Myong Gil, asked with a broad smile over lunch recently. "Where is the invoice? Give us the evidence."

Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and other opponents of the denuclearization agreement reached with North Korea last Feb. 13 are seeking to undermine it by reviving the CIA's 2002 assertion that Kim is operating a secret weapons-grade uranium-enrichment plant. Unless Pyongyang reveals the plant's location and dismantles it, Bolton argues, the denuclearization accord should be scrapped.

U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill counters that it was never clear whether such a plant existed. All that the United States knows, Hill said in a little-noticed speech last February at the Brookings Institution, is that North Korea imported certain equipment that could be used for uranium enrichment, notably aluminum tubes from Russia. "It would require a lot more equipment than we know that they have actually purchased," he said, to make the thousands of centrifuges needed for a weapons-grade enrichment facility.

The denuclearization agreement requires North Korea to provide a full declaration of "all its nuclear programs" as part of a series of parallel, reciprocal steps in which the agreement's five other signatories provide energy assistance to North Korea and the United States removes it from its list of terrorist states.

Although Pyongyang denies that it has a uranium enrichment program, it has promised to "address U.S. concerns" by showing that suspect equipment imports were for other purposes if the United States produces evidence of such imports. Regarding the aluminum tubes, the CIA has satellite photos and a bill of lading, and the North Koreans are seeking to prove that the tubes were not used for uranium enrichment. But for the centrifuges, Pakistan has not provided any documents or details that back up Musharraf's claim.

Why is Musharraf determined to keep Khan under wraps?

The official answer in Islamabad is that Pakistan's sovereignty would be affronted by letting U.S. intelligence agents cross-examine him. Khan is regarded as a national hero, and the United States is widely hated in Pakistan for invading Iraq and Afghanistan and for its insensitivity to civilian casualties. If Musharraf wanted to cooperate, however, he could permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to interrogate Khan, as former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto had suggested, or Musharraf could find out what Khan knows and give the United States the information it needs to confront the North Koreans.

Many Pakistanis say Musharraf is stonewalling because he and some of his army generals collaborated with Khan and fear exposure. Another possible explanation is that the documentary evidence does not exist. Still another is that Musharraf changed his position on the centrifuges and invented the "facts" in his memoir to curry favor with the Bush administration; by strengthening its case against North Korea, in this view, he hoped to offset dissatisfaction in Washington with his ineffectual performance in combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

This explanation cannot be dismissed, since in a February 2004 New York Times interview Musharraf "emphatically denied" U.S. reports of Pakistani nuclear technology transfers to Pyongyang.

Whatever the explanation, the United States should put the Khan issue at the top of its agenda in Islamabad. At the very least, the IAEA should be able to question him about what he gave not only to North Korea but also to Iran and Syria.

If Musharraf's allegation can be substantiated, North Korea would have to cooperate in establishing the facts in order for the denuclearization process to be completed. Pyongyang might well say that the centrifuges were obtained for a research and development program. North Korea, like Iran, is permitted under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to make low-enriched uranium fuel for civilian reactors if it accepts IAEA inspection safeguards to prevent weapons-grade enrichment. Pyongyang is unlikely to surrender its plutonium stockpile and move to full denuclearization unless this right is accepted and unless it is promised light-water plutonium reactors for electricity when and if its nuclear weapons program is dismantled.

Selig S. Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy. He has visited North Korea 10 times and is the author of Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement. He has covered Pakistan since 1951, including for The Post.