ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Amid the clamor that followed Pakistan's nuclear tests last summer, the wife of a shadowy North Korean diplomat here was shot to death in her home.
The police filed no reports. The newspapers were silent. The husband, believed to be a key figure in North Korea's secretive missile program, left the country.
Today, more than a year after the incident, the few Pakistani officials who will talk about the case say that Kim Sa Nae was killed by mistake, when a neighbor's cook accidentally fired a shotgun he had borrowed from a guard.
"I spoke with our intelligence agencies, and they said it was an accident," said Abdul Qadeer Khan, the head of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. "You Americans always try to put the blame on us."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 24, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
North Korea-Pakistan ties--A story in Monday's Times about a possible exchange of weapons know-how between North Korea and Pakistan incorrectly stated that officials at Pakistan's embassy in North Korea would not say anything about the bilateral relationship. In fact, it was officials at the North Korean Embassy in Pakistan who declined to comment.
Other officials say the truth about Kim's death is more sinister. Some familiar with the case say that she was killed on purpose--probably by her own government--because she was spilling secrets about North Korea's missile and nuclear programs or because she was planning to defect.
"She was murdered," said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Kim's death has thrown new light on the military connection between Pakistan and North Korea--at a time when the Stalinist regime is reportedly planning to launch a long-range missile capable of hitting Alaska.
While U.S. officials believe that North Korea has provided crucial help to Pakistan's missile program, the chief worry now is that economically troubled Pakistan may be tempted to pay for that help with secrets from its nuclear weapons laboratories.
That could give North Korea's leaders nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them far beyond the country's shores. Some experts believe that North Korean scientists may soon be able to assemble a nuclear bomb, and they are troubled by the country's relationship with nuclear-capable--and nearly bankrupt--Pakistan.
"Pakistan has the bomb, wants North Korea's missiles and doesn't have any money," said Henry Sokolski, an arms control expert in Washington. "North Korea has missiles and wants the bomb. That's a prescription for trouble."
Officials at the Pakistani Embassy in North Korea refused to discuss relations with Pakistan or Kim's death. Pakistani officials have given repeated assurances that they will keep their nuclear secrets to themselves.
But some experts say they are worried. Pakistan's economy is reeling toward collapse, and its nuclear technology is among its most valuable assets. Some say North Korean technicians are already working at the nuclear laboratories.
"It's highly probable that North Koreans are in those labs," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In recent years, the North Korean government has emerged as one of the world's most unpredictable regimes, relentlessly developing modern weaponry even as hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of its people die of starvation.
U.S. officials believe that North Korea has shipped missile components to several countries, including Iran and Libya, and that its relationship with Pakistan has helped aggravate the dangerous confrontation on the Indian subcontinent. In 1994, in a highly publicized deal with the U.S., North Korea's leaders agreed to quit developing nuclear weapons--but many worry that they will renege on the promise.
Last year, North Korean leaders test-fired a medium-range missile that sailed over Japan. U.S. officials believe that North Korean leaders are preparing to test a long-range missile. Earlier this month, the North Korean leadership said it might be willing to delay the missile launch--if the price was right.
As U.S. officials ponder North Korea's intentions, they have uncovered evidence of a continuing relationship with nuclear-capable Pakistan.
In June, Indian officials seized a North Korean cargo ship that they said was bound for a Pakistani port. The North Korean crew said they were ferrying water-purification equipment to the Joint Economic Development Corp. in Malta. Indian officials found that no such company existed. Inside the ship, the officials discovered 177 crates of blueprints, manuals, parts and machine tools for Scud missiles.
Pakistani officials said the ship was headed somewhere else.
U.S. officials believe that North Korean help has proved decisive in Pakistan's bid to acquire missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads.
After Pakistan tested a medium-range ballistic missile in April 1998, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Pakistan's Khan Research Laboratories and a North Korean company that allegedly shipped missile components to Pakistan. U.S. officials believe that the Pakistani missile, the Ghauri, was a carbon copy of a North Korean rocket known as the Nodong.