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North Korea's nuclear tests in Pakistan
Korea WebWeekly

Photo: An IKONOS-2 commercial satellite image of February 1, 2000. There is a feature identified on the imagery that provides a constraint on the locations for the May 30, 1998 Balochistan test, on the basis of surface disturbance, indicating the probable shaft location. Courtesy of Space Imaging and Korea WebWeekly.

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On June 10, 1998, an Air Koryo chartered plane took off the runway of the Islamabad International Airport of Pakistan. No one had anticipated the significance of this Pyongyang-bound flight in the affairs of the Korean peninsula. On board the plane were the 20 North Korean nuclear scientists who had conducted an underground nuclear test at Pakistan's Balochistan nuclear test site. In addition, the plane was loaded with the nuclear test equipment and test data.

Pakistan has conducted six nuclear tests. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan exploded 5 nuclear devices simultaneously at the Chagal Hills (Ras Koh range) nuclear test site. One of the devices was a boosted fission device. Two days later, a 14 KT nuclear device was tested at the Balochistan test site. This device is believed to be a plutonium bomb flown in from North Korea.

The people of Pakistan were relieved and overjoyed at the news of Pakistani nuclear tests in the aftermath of India's nuclear tests of the same scale (including a boosted bomb) a few days earlier. In stark contrast to the festive mood prevailing in Pakistan, the dark cloud of American spy planes and satellites shadowed the Pakistani nuclear facilities, and a horde of US CIA and DIA agents swarmed to Pakistan's capital.

Pyongyang had no time to celebrate its Balochistan nuclear test success because it had the daunting task of extracting its nuclear scientists, test equipment and test data safely from Pakistan. Hundreds of American spies and agents were out to grab North Korean scientists and nuclear materials. Even if the plane took off safely, it might have been shot down or forced to land by American planes.

North Korea had anticipated dirty plays by the Americans and worked out detailed counter measures for the safe return of its nuclear assets. Little has been published about this super secret operation. Several American news articles have revealed certain aspects of the operation, however.

The Los Angeles Times has published two articles (1999.8.23 and 2004.3.1) related to the operation. On June 7, 1998, one week after the Balohsitan test, a gunshot rang out in the darkness of the night in the exclusive residential district of Islamabad. The district referred to as "E-7" is for high-ranking military officers and nuclear scientists, and as such, it is highly secured. Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, lives in the district. In fact, the gun was fired only a few meters from Dr. Khan's residence. The victim was Kim Sa-nae, a North Korean woman. There was no eyewitness and Pakistani plainclothes men investigated the incidence. Kim Sa-nae was reportedly well-known for her cold-noodles, a famed North Korean dish.

Kim's death was duly reported on Pakistani newspapers but few paid attention at the time, when the news of the nuclear tests dominated the news at the time. The Pakistanis said that Kim Sa-nae was a North Korean diplomat. Her mysterious murder was forgotten until the Los Angeles Times picked it up one year later. The Los Angeles Times story went far beyond what was reported by the Pakistanis. It had some sinister twists added to the unsolved 'murder'.

1). The Pakistani police refused to disclose the true identity of Kim Sa-nae. The US intelligence claims that Kim was the wife of Kang Thae-yun, a mid-level staff member at the North Korean Embassy in Pakistan, and that Kang was in fact an agent of North Korea's Chang-kwang Trading Company, which sells weapons overseas. The Americans claim that Kang was no diplomat - he was a weapons salesman. Kang left Pakistan one month after Kim's death. On the other hand, the Pakistanis claim that Kim Sa-nae was one of the twenty North Korean nuclear scientists, who were staying at the guest house of Dr. Khan's residence when Kim was shot.

2). The Pakistani police has not disclosed the murderer of Kim Sa-nae. There have been three different speculations. One says that a cook working next door to Dr. Khan borrowed a gun from a guard and fired it by accident. The second story says that one of Dr. Khan's neighbors fired his gun accidentally while cleaning it. Dr. Khan has stated that Kim's death was accidental. In contrast, the American intelligence claims that Kim Sa-nae was an American spy and provided information on North Korea's nuclear tests to the Western intelligence agents, and that she was killed while trying to defect.

3). The Los Angeles Times article claims no autopsy was done on Kim's body and that the Pakistani police was told to close the book on her case. The American intelligence claims that her body was returned to Pyongyang on June 10th, four days after her murder on a Pakistani cargo plane, and that her coffin contained two centrifuge machines for enriching uranium and associated manuals. In those days, Air Koryo had two flights per month to Islamabad. In fact, an Air Koryo plane was at Islamabad at the time of Kim's murder. Then, why would Kim's body be on a Pakistani plane?

The truth is most likely that there was no Kim Sa-nae. She was made up by North Korea to create confusion to cover up the extraction of its nuclear assets. On the other hand, the Americans went along to hammer in their claim that Pakistan provided enriched uranium technology to North Korea (and therefore, North Korea 'has' an enriched uranium nuclear program).

The Kim Sa-nae 'murder' was a fabrication to draw away American spies in Pakistan from the imminent departure of the Air Koryo plane carrying North Korean nuclear scientists, test equipment and test data. It was a cat and mouse game, in which North Korea won.

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