By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, on a state visit to North Korea in 1993, smuggled in critical data on uranium enrichment -- a route to making a nuclear weapon -- to help facilitate a missile deal with Pyongyang, according to a new book by a journalist who knew the slain politician well.
The assertion is based on conversations that the author, Shyam Bhatia, had with Bhutto in 2003, in which she said she would tell him a secret "so significant that I had to promise never to reveal it, at least not during her lifetime," Bhatia writes in "Goodbye, Shahzadi," which was published in India last month.
Bhutto was slain in December while campaigning to win back the prime minister's post.
The account, if verified, could advance the timeline for North Korea's interest in uranium enrichment. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a research organization on nuclear weapons programs, said the assertion "makes sense," because there were signs of "funny procurements" in the late 1980s by North Korea that suggested a nascent effort to assemble a uranium enrichment project.
Pakistan -- and, in particular, a nuclear smuggling ring run by Pakistani metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was instrumental in developing a Pakistani nuclear bomb -- has long been suspected as a source of expertise for North Korea, but such high-level government involvement always has been denied.
In 2002, after observing a series of suspect North Korean purchases, the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of having a clandestine program to produce highly enriched uranium -- a charge that helped sink a Clinton-era deal that had frozen North Korea's plutonium-based reactor. North Korea insists that it had no such program, though it recently agreed to "acknowledge" U.S. concerns as part of an agreement to disable its nuclear reactor.
Nadeem Kiani, spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy, denounced Bhatia's account as "an absurd and baseless claim," adding, "It has no iota of truth and not even worth commenting."
Bhatia is a London-based investigative reporter who has written four other books, including one of the earliest accounts of India's nuclear program. Bhatia said he first met Bhutto at Oxford University in 1974 and kept contact with her until just weeks before she was killed.
George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, knows Bhatia and cited his book in Perkovich's own study of the Indian program. "He is very smart, a serious guy, and the work he did on the Indian nuclear program has held up really well," Perkovich said.
Selig S. Harrison, a specialist on South Asia and North Korea at the Center for International Policy who has read the book, said Bhatia "is credible on Bhutto. . . . He knew her very well and is a reputable Indian journalist."
In his book, Bhatia writes that Bhutto brought up the North Korea visit during a discussion in 2003 about her difficulties with Pakistan's military. "Let me tell you something," she declared, before telling Bhatia to turn off his tape recorder. "I have done more for my country than all the military chiefs of Pakistan combined."
At the time, Pakistan was in desperate need of new missile technology that would counter improvements in India's missiles. Bhutto said she was asked to carry "critical nuclear data" to hand over in Pyongyang as part of a barter deal.
"Before leaving Islamabad she shopped for an overcoat with the 'deepest possible pockets' into which she transferred CDs containing the scientific data about uranium enrichment that the North Koreans wanted," Bhatia writes. "She implied with a glint in her eye that she had acted as a two-way courier, bringing North Korea's missile information on CDs back with her on the return journey."
Bhatia said Bhutto did not tell him how many CDs she carried or who she gave them to in Pyongyang. His repeated efforts to persuade her to go on the record about the story were not successful.
Highly enriched uranium, a fuel for nuclear weapons, is produced by cascades of centrifuges that spin hot uranium gas. Albright, who has read Bhatia's account, said the CDs probably contained blueprints of the more than 100 centrifuge components as well as general assembly drawings. "It is tricky to assemble a centrifuge," he said.
Bhutto has always publicly said that Pakistan paid cash for the missile cooperation, though Albright has located one quote by Bhutto in 2004 making reference to computer disks being involved.