Skip to main content

North Korea's Pakistan Connection

Aparna Pande

North Korea’s claim of enhancing its nuclear weapons program draws attention to the failure of global non proliferation regimes. The real failure however may not be in North Korea but in Pakistan. The presence of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula and China’s willingness to keep Pyongyang in check act as constraints on North Korea. The tendency of Washington to treat Pakistan with kid gloves leaves it without any sense of being contained.

On January 6, 2016, Pyongyang claimed it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. Experts will take days to fully analyze whether or not North Korea had the technical capability to undertake a test of that magnitude but preliminary reports state that Pyongyang was lying. The AQ Khan Network run by the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold sensitive technology to help North Korea build its program.

AQ Khan has never paid for what he did and no one knows for sure if we have all the information about the illicit network. No comprehensive investigation was undertaken by Pakistan or by members of the international community. Instead, then military dictator General Pervez Musharraf pardoned AQ Khan in 2004 after the latter gave “a televised confession in which he admitted selling the technology but insisted that he acted alone.

Khan was removed from his position but there was no accounting for his actions. An official Pakistani pronouncement to the effect that the problem had been addressed was deemed enough. Pakistan insisted the matter was closed and the United States accepted Pakistan’s explanation because Washington needed Islamabad’s help in the war in Afghanistan.

For decades, the United States has sought to control and curb the global proliferation of nuclear technology. Yet in an inexplicable development last year, some American experts and administration officials argued offering Pakistan a civil nuclear deal along the lines akin to the 2006 India-US civil nuclear deal. The delusion was this would bring Pakistan within a restraint regime and increase American knowledge about Pakistan’s rapidly rising nuclear arsenal.

For the last six decades succeeding American administrations have indulged in the fallacy that more aid and materiel will provide them with greater leverage in Pakistan and that in turn will help them convince Pakistan to change its policies. As the title of former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States Husain Haqqani’s seminal book on U.S.-Pakistan relations notes the United States has lived in Magnificent Delusions for decades.

Right from independence in 1947, Pakistan’s foreign and security policy has been centered on the desire for parity with its larger neighbor, India. Decades later, India is still the existential threat, instead of the radical jihadis that threaten to break up Pakistan.

Desirous of but unable to achieve conventional military parity with India, Pakistan’s security establishment saw nuclear weapons as providing that parity. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was and remains India centered. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, both for the state and the lay public, are integral to Pakistani national psyche and the needs of a security conscious state obsessed with India.

Over the years many experts, primarily American, have argued for India to accept restraints on its program and sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They assert Pakistan will follow suit thus placing the burden on India to act. However, that is a misconception.

The aim of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is not deterrence that was achieved decades ago—- it is parity with India. Hence, it is almost impossible for any Pakistani government to accept restraints on their program unless they have achieved the impossible task of parity with India in this sphere as well.

Pakistan built its nuclear weapons program during the 1970s and 1980s while receiving massive American economic and military assistance. The military regime of General Zia ul Haq promised the Reagan administration that it would not build nuclear weapons. Yet as has been demonstrated in declassified U.S. government documents, Washington often turned a blind eye because of the need for Pakistan as an ally during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union.

After secretly building its nuclear weapons during the 1980s, in the 1990s an elaborate global proliferation network came up in Pakistan centered on the figure of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan. This network sold “nuclear secrets to any rogue state that came calling.” North Korea was one of the many countries that benefitted from this largesse. “As many as two planes a month arrived in Pakistan from Pyongyang during the late 1990s, bringing the missile technology in exchange for AQ Khan’s secrets, such as how to use centrifuges to enrich enough uranium for a weapon.”

Other countries part of the network were Iran and Libya: the former is now seeking recognition as a nuclear weapons state while the latter agreed to give up its technology in return for removal of international sanctions and aid.

In December 2015, at a hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on the issue of Civil Nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, Chairman of the Subcommittee Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) bluntly stated that the “A.Q. Khan Network is believed to have sold sensitive nuclear technology to the most unstable countries on the planet. It was the Khan Network that allowed North Korea to get its uranium enrichment program up and running.”

Six decades of interactions with Americans have affirmed the Pakistani military’s belief that cosmetic changes or words alone will suffice to convince the U.S., that Pakistan is a serious member of the international community and deserves to be treated as one.

That the fundamentals of Pakistani policy have not changed was demonstrated when in March 2015 an official from Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, the key administrative organ within Pakistan’ Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) made light of Jihadists having penetrated Pakistan’s nuclear program. “We filtered out people having negative tendencies that could have affected national security,” said the NCA official, as if that was sufficient to assuage international concerns.

This attempt to reassure the international community that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are in safe hands and will not fall into the hands of the Jihadis differs little from Pakistan’s response to the troubling sale of nuclear weapons technology by Dr. A.Q. Khan and his criminal network.

Pakistan’s reassurance about the security of its nuclear program ignores the possibility of a military officer with Islamist sympathies rising up the ranks. In that event, an Islamist would have his fingers on the nuclear trigger and could act independent of his institution, just as Dr. Khan single-handedly sold nuclear material and plans to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

There has been no introspection within Pakistan about the presence of a network that violated all international norms and there is little to no discussion globally on this issue either. Pakistan remains unwilling to change the substance of its policy on terrorism and also continues to build its nuclear arsenal even as it succeeds in reassuring the international community that it is ready for a drastic transformation.

Washington could, as before, simply ignore these warning signs and move on with business as usual. Or the next time Pakistan’s army chief comes to town instead of being feted he could be asked tough questions on Pakistan’s proliferation record.

If global non-proliferation is to be pursued seriously there has to be a way to make nations pay for bad behavior including on world proliferation. Until that is done threats like North Korea’s will continue to surface.

Related Articles

Israel’s Biggest Problem Is American Appeasement of Iran

Michael Doran

Michael Doran appears on Jewish News Syndicate's Mideast News Hour...

Watch Now