Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, confirmed that he spoke with a Nauruan delegation about North Korea. But he says he was not personally directing any operation to bring out refugees through Nauruan diplomatic offices.
"The Nauruans came to call on me like many people who were interested in human rights in North Korea," said Horowitz. He said he did not find it peculiar that a country as small and troubled as Nauru would take on such a cause. "There were some people advising the [Nauruan] government who were genuinely concerned about North Korea."
Nauru is possibly one of the most troubled countries in the world. Its meager land mass, composed largely of guano, an organic material made of bird droppings, is sinking into the Pacific Ocean as a result of global warming and excessive phosphate mining. Nearly half of the population of 11,000 suffers from diabetes. The country has had three presidents in the last six months.
In October, Nauru was also up to its neck in legal trouble as a result of a bucket-shop operation to sell Nauruan passports for $30,000 each. A number of criminals and terrorists, including suspected Al Qaeda operatives, had been caught with Nauruan passports in hand. Terrorists and crime syndicates were also laundering money through Nauru's post office-box banks.
The United States was threatening to invoke crippling economic sanctions against the republic under the 2001 Patriot Act if it did not change its banking and passport systems -- which were also a major revenue source.
In effect, the deal allegedly struck by the Nauruans involved far more than selling passports; they were selling their entire diplomatic status. According to the documents, the Nauruan government was to get a list of staff that it would name to its consulate in Washington and to its Beijing embassy, with little choice in the appointments.
The operation was, according to the documents, supposed to be directed by Steven M. Ray, an American who would be temporarily named consul general in Washington "for the particular purpose of this project."
According to Nauru's official Web site, Ray is the consul general designate in Washington, awaiting approval by the State Department. Ray, a former journalist who works with a conservative talk show, said through a lawyer that he was not involved with North Korean defectors. Staff at the embassy in Beijing similarly denied involvement.
From the perspective of refugee advocates, an embassy in Beijing would be enormously useful. More than 100,000 North Koreans are believed to have fled across the border into China. But they are denied refugee status by the Chinese government and routinely repatriated to North Korea. Many seek diplomatic asylum at embassies in Beijing, but foreign governments are fearful of straining their relations with China by giving overt aid to North Korean defectors.
The scientist, Kyong Won Ha, who reportedly escaped, is a mathematician by training whose expertise in the field of spherical detonation is crucial to the building of a nuclear bomb. His background is unusual; he grew up in North Korea, escaped to South Korea after the Korean War, then moved to the United States and Canada before defecting back to North Korea in 1974. According to some accounts, Kyong worked briefly at Los Alamos in the early 1970s.
"One of the key scientists and engineers behind the 30-50mw reactor in Yongbyon [the North Korean nuclear complex] and its configuration into a source of plutonium," is how one science journal referred to him.
The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo last week quoted a North Korean official confirming that Kyong had defected recently. A refugee activist said he believed that Kyong is living either in the United States or Canada.
It would not be the first time a North Korean scientist has defected to the United States. In January 2002, Lim Ki Sung, a missile expert, is believed to have escaped with his son and a nephew into China, where U.S. officials ultimately helped them get new passports and visas. Lim has reportedly supplied key U.S. intelligence about North Korea's efforts to develop a multistage intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.
Clodumar, the former Nauruan president, acknowledges that Nauru was never able to help with the North Korean defectors. But it says it followed all the instructions it was given: setting up the diplomatic offices and tightening its passport and banking laws. He says that Nauru also turned over previously confidential banking records of Nauruan-registered corporations to assist in the war against terrorism.
"We did everything they told us to do," said Clodumar. "If the United States denies it, what can we do? We're a little country."
Special correspondent Anthony Kuhn in Beijing contributed to this report.