As the prospect of war with North Korea becomes more likely, Mark Fitzpatrick discusses the role of Pakistan and India in deterring Pyongyang.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas

Assigned the topic of North Korea at a workshop in Islamabad on 6 December, hosted by the Center for International Strategic Studies, I sought to make my talk relevant to participants from the host nation, though not in the way some of them took it. The chair of my session thought I was implicitly drawing a comparison between Pakistan and North Korea. In some ways, yes, but my comparison in the end was to South Korea. I will explain why in a minute.

Firstly though, the North Korea connections. In a throwaway introductory line I said I would not refer to the sordid nuclear history between the two states. Everyone knew what that meant; Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks (2007) was the first book I produced for The International Institute for Strategic Studies. Though the ties were cut off over a decade ago, North Korea’s highly enriched uranium programme is rooted in the centrifuge technology provided by A.Q. Khan in the late 1990s.

Fingers are still pointed at Pakistan. The UN Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions reported earlier this year that Pakistan was one of 18 countries to have imported UN-sanctioned goods and minerals from North Korea: $1.4 million of iron and steel in October 2016, and $2.5m the next month, after which the imports cease. In a sense, Pakistan was in good company: France, Germany and India were among the others that imported banned North Korean materials.

India and Pakistan rank as North Korea’s second and third largest trade partners, after China. The reported trade is not large: $98m in exports to India in 2015 and $43m to Pakistan. In Pakistan’s case, official trade with North Korea supposedly ceased in August 2016. Yet North Korea retains a commercial office in its Consulate General in Karachi. One wonders what they are doing and how long they will stay, in light of UN sanctions and US pressure on states to curb diplomatic ties with North Korea. Pakistan itself has one lonely diplomat in Pyongyang.

Not all trade is reported. In November, the house of a North Korean diplomat in Islamabad was robbed of more than $150,000 worth of whiskey, beer and wine, which is illegal to purchase in the Islamic country. Bootlegging liquor and other goods brought in by diplomatic pouch is a common way for North Korean diplomats around the world to make ends meet.

Cutting all UN-banned trade is an important way for law-abiding states everywhere in the world to assist in persuading North Korea to choose between its threatening nuclear posture and a growing economy. Sanctions will not likely be a sufficient means of coercing Pyongyang, but it is well worth trying every possible peaceful lever, lest North Korea’s strategic advances spark a nuclear war. As I said in my Islamabad talk, such a war, which is becoming more likely, would have global repercussions and would therefore be of direct relevance to Pakistan. What I didn't say is that it would be blamed for any highly enriched uranium bomb that North Korea used.

What I also didn't say is that North Korea’s boast of being able to hold every city in the continental US at nuclear risk is somewhat akin to Pakistan’s insistence on full-spectrum deterrence to be able to hit any military facility in India that might pose a threat. While visiting Pakistan this month, I heard repeated concerns about what India might be up to in building a tri-service base in the Adaman and Nikobar Islands. It is cited as a justification for development of Pakistan’s 2,750km-range Shaheen-3 ballistic missile. Yet as long as Pakistan’s shorter-range nuclear missiles can threaten Mumbai and New Delhi, it has a reliable counter-value nuclear deterrent. Adding longer-range missiles that can reach anywhere in India is unnecessary.

So what is the comparison to South Korea? This: just as the United States began to put economic pressure on Pakistan, starting in 1985, to try to force it to stop its nuclear-weapons development, so too did the US put heavy pressure on South Korea to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the 1970s. The US has had a universal approach to non-proliferation, seeking to bar all – allies, friends and adversaries – from joining the nuclear club. As popular opinion in South Korea again looks favourably at the option of indigenous nuclear weapons, I hope pro-nuclear pundits there will not look favourably at the Pakistan example.

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armed conflict database

Armed Conflict Database

A regularly updated IISS online resource providing detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.

armed conflict database

Armed Conflict Database

A regularly updated IISS online resource providing detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.