A.Q. Khan’s Revelations: Did Pakistan’s Army Sell Nukes to North Korea?

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Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan at a ceremony at the Rawalpindi high court on January 9, 2010 (Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty)

Abdul Qadeer Khan is tired of being a scapegoat. The controversial father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb shared hi-tech secrets and equipment with a host of rogue regimes — including North Korea and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya — earning himself international notoriety and a 2005 TIME magazine cover that dubbed him “the Merchant of Menace.” In 2004, Khan appeared on Pakistani national television, confessing that he had run a ring that smuggled nuclear technology. The next day, he was pardoned by then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who would write in his memoirs that Pakistan’s history of illicit nuclear proliferation was simply “a one-man act and that neither the government of Pakistan nor the army was involved.”

But an embittered Khan now seems bent on exploding that image. Last week, in an interview with the German publication Der Spiegel, he rounded on Musharraf and the Pakistani military, claiming he was “stabbed in the back by the very people who benefited most from my work — i.e., the army.” On July 7, via a Washington-based Pakistan scholar who knows Khan, the Washington Post published a 1998 letter from a top-ranking North Korean official to Khan. No news outlet can fully vouch for its authenticity, but if it’s real, its contents will only deepen the international community’s scrutiny of (and exasperation with) Pakistan’s military — an institution that is already under fire for playing a seeming double-game in the war against jihadist militancy in South Asia.

(READ: TIME’s 2005 A.Q. Khan cover story, “The Man Who Sold the Bomb”)

The letter, written purportedly by Jon Byong-Ho, then a top-ranking North Korean official, details bribes given to other Pakistani military officers in return for “missile components.” It states:

The 3 million dollars have already been paid to Army Chief Gen. J Karamat and half a million dollars and 3 diamond and ruby sets have been given to Gen. Zulfiqar Khan.

Pakistani government officials immediately rubbished the letter, calling it a “fabrication.” The now retired Gen. Jehangir Karamat dismissed it as “totally false.” When confronted by reporters, Gen. Zulfiqar Khan, later the head of a powerful state utility company, said, “I have not read the story, but of course it is wrong.” The North Korean government has not commented on the letter.

A Pakistani official told the Post these allegations comprise just an act of vengeance by a discredited, disgraced scientist. But others aren’t quite so convinced:

Olli Heinonen, a 27-year vet­eran of the International Atomic Energy Agency who led its investigation of Khan before moving to Harvard’s Kennedy School last year, said the letter is similar to other North Korean notes that he had seen or received. They typically lacked a letterhead, he said; moreover, he said he has previously heard similar accounts — originating from senior Pakistanis — of clandestine payments by North Korea to Pakistani military officials and government advisers.

The substance of the letter, Heinonen said, “makes a lot of sense,” given what is now known about the North Korean program.

It’s suspected that North Korea, a totalitarian pariah state known for its trail of illicit dealings around the globe, obtained a good amount of the centrifuges and other equipment needed to make nuclear weapons from A.Q. Khan’s network — Khan also apparently dealt with Iran, Libya and maybe even U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states. In his Der Spiegel interview, Khan denies profiting from any of these transactions — a very dubious claim, to be sure, for a man who kept numerous villas around the globe and was capable of making a one-time $30 million donation to a famous mosque — and instead points the finger at the Pakistani army and its Special Plans Division as the ones supervising this clandestine proliferation.

Even if the letter proves to be a fake, the incident has brought back to life an episode in history the Pakistanis had hoped to put behind them. Khan, an ardent nationalist who now lives a ghost life under surveillance in his own country, may be seeking to drag his name a bit further away from the halls of global infamy. But he surely won’t have endeared himself to his former military employers, some of whom remain under suspicion for alleged ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist, militant groups.

In his Der Spiegel interview, Khan speaks with pride of what he claims is his own career’s legacy — bequeathing the nuclear bomb to Pakistan at a time when archrival India was due to test its own weapons:

I still believe I did Pakistan a favor. Nuclear weapons are a means of ensuring peace by using it as a tit-for-tat threat. I am convinced that there will never be another war between India and Pakistan as a consequence thereof.

But shadowy worlds of spooks and smugglers — and maybe even scheming generals — are hardly the sorts of places from which prospects of real peace, or clarity, emerge.

MORE: Kim Jong-Il, the Tony Soprano of North Korea 

Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter for TIME and editor of Global Spin. Find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.