The detonation of a nuclear device by North Korea’s tyrant is an apocalyptic event calling for America’s unity against one of her most indoctrinated foes. “Let’s exterminate our sworn enemy U.S. imperialism!” reads a slogan posted inside North Korean jet cockpits, sailor’s cabins, and army guard posts. Instead, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called for an investigation of the Bush administration’s “failed North Korea policies.” I once belonged to the sanctum sanctorum of the impregnable citadel of Communist nuclear intrigue, and I have hard reasons to believe that no atomic diplomacy on earth could have stopped Kim Jong Il from achieving nuclear weapons.
In my other life, as a Romanian intelligence general, I was at the beck and call of another 5’4” dictator involved in building nuclear weapons in a defiant bid for survival and respect, and nothing short of death was able to deter him from achieving that goal. Not even the defection of his top nuclear-weapon adviser — myself.
Eleven years later, in 1989, Ceausescu was executed for genocide, and Romania’s new government reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had discovered plutonium separated in a Triga nuclear reactor. The amount of plutonium found at that time was small, but the act was a clear violation of Romania’s commitments made under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. According to a Canadian study, “a more extensive nuclear weapons program may have been covered up.”
The proliferation of nuclear weapons is something we should thank Nikita Khrushchev for. He gave Soviet technology to China, which further passed it on to North Korea and Pakistan. Iosif Stalin, the father of Russia’s nuclear weapons, had kept them close to his chest.
I never met Stalin in the flesh, but I heard plenty of stories about him from my one-time Soviet counterpart Igor Kurchatov, who headed the Soviet equivalent of the Manhattan Project. According to him, Stalin was as a kind of Geppetto, the Italian carpenter who carved a piece of wood that could laugh and cry like a child. Stalin’s Pinocchio was called “Iosif-1,” and it was an identical copy of the American “Fat Man” nuclear bomb.
“Iosif-1” was wholly based on technological intelligence provided by NKVD agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Morton Sobel. That was why in 1948 Stalin appointed NKVD chairman Lavrenty Beriya to coordinate the whole Soviet nuclear project. On September 29, 1949, when Beriya called him from the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan to say that “Iosif-1” had indeed produced the same kind of mushroom cloud as in the American tests, Stalin suddenly was sitting on top of the world.
“That day Stalin swore to keep nuclear power for himself,” I heard Frédéric Joliot-Curie say in August 1955, when I was a member of the Romanian delegation at the United Nations Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy. The French nuclear physicist and prominent Communist, appointed by Stalin as president of the Soviet-created World Peace Council, claimed he had been in Moscow during that test.
Everything changed after Stalin died. Khrushchev liked to portray himself as a peasant, but that was misleading, to say the least. Peasants have a sense of property. Khrushchev did not. He matured politically in a period when the Communists were bent on eradicating private property throughout the Soviet Union, and he developed an eminently destructive nature. Only a few short years after his enthronement in the Kremlin, he smashed Stalin’s statues and shattered the Soviet Union’s image as a workers’ paradise, all without constructing anything new to fill the vacuum he had created. Then Khrushchev decided to fulfill Communism’s historic destiny as the gravedigger of capitalism by arming its deadly enemies with nukes.
That opened a Pandora’s box and let loose an international nightmare.
Khrushchev’s nuclear-proliferation process started with Communist China in April 1955, when the new ruler in the Kremlin consented to supply Beijing a sample atomic bomb and to help with its mass production. Subsequently, the Soviet Union built all the essentials of China’s new military nuclear industry. A couple of years later, however, the relations between Khrushchev and Mao Zedong went sour. The Chinese leader grew increasingly unhappy with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization and took at face value his policy of peaceful coexistence with the West. Mao therefore branded Khrushchev as “soft on imperialism” and accused him of abandoning Communist principles.
I never met Chairman Mao, but his prime minister, Zhou Enlai, made several visits to Romania, where I repeatedly heard him say that Mao had gotten tired of Khrushchev and had started openly displaying his discontent — in a Chinese way. Zhou, speaking fluent French, picturesquely described for us how Mao “smoked like a locomotive” during his meetings with Khrushchev, even though he knew the Soviet leader’s aversion to cigarettes. Worse, during a 1958 meeting in Beijing, Mao, who was an Olympic-class swimmer, took his guest over to the swimming pool, though he knew Khrushchev could not swim. It was hilarious, Zhou said, to see Khrushchev bobbing around in an inner tube while the chairman swam rings around him, like a fish.
On October 26, 1959, Khrushchev landed in Bucharest for what would be billed as his “six-day vacation in Romania.” He had never before taken such a long vacation abroad, but neither was his stay in Romania actually a vacation. In reality, Khrushchev came to Bucharest to use the friendly relations between Romania’s ruler, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, and China’s Zhou Enlai for mending his deteriorating relations with Chairman Mao. During Khrushchev’s visit I ate with him, I attended the secret talks that took place in the acoustically secure room hastily improvised at his villa, and twice I even helped carry the Soviet ruler to bed, after he had downed more drinks than he could handle. His self-destructive nature looked to me beyond repair.
In June 1960 Khrushchev spent eight more days in Bucharest, this time attending the IIIrd Congress of the Romanian Workers party. There he attacked Mao by name and received in turn a blistering response from the chief of the Chinese delegation. I observed the confrontation between the Ukrainian flowered shirt and the Chinese high-buttoned uniform, and I worried that the incident might assume catastrophic dimensions in Khrushchev’s volatile mind.
A few weeks after the IIIrd Congress, we were indeed treated to a new sample of Khrushchev’s destructive nature. He suddenly withdrew all the Soviet advisers from China and terminated all important joint contracts and projects. According to the Chinese, Moscow pulled out 1,390 experts, tore up 343 contracts, and scrapped 257 cooperative projects in just a few weeks. Data provided by various U.S. intelligence agencies attest that by the mid-1980s China was producing at least 800 kilograms of uranium and 400 kilograms of plutonium-239 per year. The exact strength of the Chinese strategic force is still relatively unknown, but in 1996 the number of warheads was estimated at 2,500, with 140-150 more being produced each year.
On October 14, 1964, Khrushchev was unexpectedly dethroned by his deputy, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, who accused him of harebrained schemes, hasty decisions, actions divorced from reality, braggadocio, and rule by fiat.
Khrushchev long ago became history. Not so the Kremlin’s habit of secretly proliferating nuclear weapons to dictators who dream of waging war on America. There is convincing evidence showing that Moscow has helped the terrorist government of Iran to construct a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor at Bushehr, with a uranium conversion facility able to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. There is also evidence that, at the same time, hundreds of Russian technicians have helped the government of Iran to develop the Shahab-4 missile, with a range of over 1,250 miles, which can carry a nuclear or germ warhead anywhere in the Middle East and Europe.
On May 23, 2002 President George W. Bush expressed his anxiety about Iran’s dangerous venture. “Russia needs to be concerned about proliferations into a country that might view them as an enemy at some point in time. And if Iran gets weapons of mass destruction, deliverable by missile, that’s going to be a problem,” he said. “That’s going to be a problem for all of us, including Russia.”
During his May 2006 state of the nation speech President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of a new Cold War. Russia’s president portrayed the United States as his country’s “main adversary” and pledged to increase the nuclear triad of land, sea and air-based strategic weapons. “It is premature to speak of the end of the arms race,” he said in his televised address to the Russian people. “Moreover, it is going faster today. It is rising to a new technological level.”
Pinning the blame for the current nuclear proliferation on the Bush administration’s unwillingness to bribe North Korea’s playboy despot is not going to solve the current nuclear crisis. Hoping that the just-approved U.N. resolution instituting sanctions on North Korea will take care of the problem is equally illusory. Persuading Putin to stop playing nuclear Armageddon might be the best way out.
—Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa is the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc. His book Red Horizons has been republished in 27 countries.