Pakistan’s nuclear links with North Korea

Pakistan’s nuclear links with North Korea

The controversy surrounding nuclear links between Pakistan and North Korea erupted in November 2002, when it was disclosed that ‘Pakistan provided North [Korea] with many of the designs for gas centrifuges and many of the components it needed to make highly enriched uranium for the country’s latest nuclear weapons project’.

The controversy surrounding nuclear links between Pakistan and North Korea erupted in November 2002, when it was disclosed that ‘Pakistan provided North [Korea] with many of the designs for gas centrifuges and many of the components it needed to make highly enriched uranium for the country’s latest nuclear weapons project’.

According to the David Sanger of the New York Times, North Korea, with its long-range-missile expertise, provided Pakistan with ballistic missiles in exchange. The collaboration helped Pakistan ‘build a nuclear arsenal capable of reaching every strategic site in India’.

Initially, Pakistan dismissed the report as ‘absolutely incorrect’, but later in 2006 President Pervez Musharraf in his memoirs acknowledged that ‘Pakistan had contracted a government-to-government deal with North Korea for the purchase of conventional ballistic missiles, including transfer of technology’.

As for the sharing of nuclear technology, Musharraf further added that ‘A. Q. Khan transferred nearly two dozen P-1 and P-2 centrifuges to North Korea [along with] a flow meter, some special oils for centrifuges, and coaching on centrifuge technology, including visits to top-secret centrifuge plants’.

Musharraf strongly denied any direct link between the transfer of ballistic missiles and nuclear technology, but the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. Whether an authorized barter deal occurred or not, the evidence suggesting that some kind of trade happened posed serious questions regarding the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons.

North Korea remains one of the world’s most impoverished and isolated countries, with serious human rights issues. The spread of nuclear technology and weapons to such unstable states can have dire consequences.

Clearly, North Korea’s determination in acquiring nuclear capabilities over forty years suggests that the issue remained one of the highest priorities for the country’s national security and strategic considerations.

As for Pakistan, nuclear proliferation or the sale of its nuclear expertise to North Korea did not constitute a threat to its sovereignty. But what occurred beneath the surface is critical.

Information about the exact nature of the transactions between Pakistan and North Korea reveal a complex web that involves the A. Q. Khan network, the Pakistani military, and the government of Pakistan. But did Khan initiate and carry out the proliferation of nuclear technology on his own? Or, if authorization occurred, what was the role of the Pakistani government?

In this regard, it will be important to distinguish between government policy per se and the Pakistani military; the latter manages and controls the nuclear programme, and at times operates exclusively outside the control of the political leadership.

There are various possibilities that explain the nuclear link between Pakistan and North Korea as reported in the 2002 New York Times article.

But before continuing with our examination, a word must be said about the availability of information regarding nuclear technology exchange between Pakistan and North Korea. Pakistani–North Korean (Pak–DPRK) nuclear links, in comparison to evidence of Pakistan– Libya or Pakistan–Iran dealings, pose greater challenges to decipher due to the lack of information available on the subject.

US officials have stated repeatedly that information on North Korea’s centrifuge programme is limited. Some of the latest books and trade publications have filled this void to some extent, but the level of information remains small compared to the Iranian and Libyan cases, where extensive IAEA reports provide useful details.

However, despite these difficulties, the author is confident of the conclusions presented here, which come after careful consideration and scrutiny of the literature, interviews, and evidence available publicly and off the record.

To understand the motivations behind nuclear exchanges between Pakistan and North Korea, it is best to first explore North Korea’s motivations for developing nuclear capabilities. In this sense, similar to the Pakistan experience, neo-realism and strategic culture provide a framework to understand North Korea’s actions.

One explanation is that the original Pakistan–North Korea deal was an official transaction in which Pakistan paid hard cash for long-range ballistic missiles in 1993, as claimed by the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Then later, the A. Q. Khan network cut a separate deal with North Korea from 1997 to 1999 that involved the sale of centrifuge technology.

According to this scenario, Khan acted outside his mandate and without government authorization. This explanation, however, fails to explain why Khan was permitted to host North Korean nuclear scientists at the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in 1999.

Permission for this would have had to come directly from the Pakistani military leadership managing the programme, since it exposed foreign nationals to highly sensitive information concerning national security.

Moreover, the presence of North Korean nuclear scientists at KRL implies the sharing of information. Khan, in a 2011 statement, claimed that one of his two trips to North Korea was made at the request of General Musharraf himself.

Some reports suggest that photographs taken by the US intelligence monitoring the Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998 reveal several North Korean military officers present at the detonations, further indicating the possible nature of strategic nuclear links between the two states.

Moreover, it is alleged that one of the tests Pakistan conducted on 30 May 1998 used plutonium, and was possibly carried out for the benefit of the North Korean visitors. This appears to be too risky an arrangement for Pakistan at the time, especially as the tests were conducted under the management of the PAEC, whereas the North Koreans had closer links with KRL. There is no evidence to back up this set of allegations.

In this overall context, this chapter first provides a brief sketch of North Korea’s nuclear development, followed by an analysis of the historical nature of Pakistan–North Korea relations. Next, it charts out the nuclear links between the two countries.

It further deliberates on the range of possibilities and theories that explain Pakistan North Korea nuclear trade and examines the potential motivations behind these transactions.

Extracted with permission.

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