The Pulse

Viewing North Korea’s Nuclear Test through a South Asian Lens

North Korea’s recent nuclear test has renewed suspicions over ties with Pakistan.

It was never in doubt that North Korea’s nuclear test on February 12 would raise hackles in East Asia. The rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula since Pyongyang launched a rocket in December, along with its alleged progress towards miniaturizing the nuclear device it was testing, have elicited widespread condemnation from South Korea, Japan and the United States. Even China, North Korea’s closest ally, expressed its “resolute” opposition and “strong dissatisfaction” following the test.

Hours after the North Korean test, the United Nations Security Council issued a strong statement condemning the test and promised to push through a new resolution with stronger sanctions.

However, perhaps the most noteworthy statement against the launch came from India, a country that does not tend to respond quickly to developments beyond South Asia.

Despite its “Look East” policy and burgeoning bilateral partnerships with South Korea and Japan, India has a limited direct stake and leverage over developments on the Korean peninsula. Further, it is not a member of the six-party talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution for North Korea’s nuclear program.

Calling Pyongyang’s latest act of defiance “a matter of deep concern”, India urged North Korea “to refrain from such actions which adversely impact on peace and stability in the region.”

Beyond concerns over North Korea’s consolidation of its de-facto nuclear status, New Delhi’s “deep concern” had a South Asian subtext; namely, the allegedly close nexus between the nuclear and scientific establishments in Pakistan and North Korea. Many believe that the ties between Pakistan and North Korea have contributed to Pyongyang’s progress towards developing nuclear weapons.

The test coincided with Pakistan’s reassertion of its opposition to the fissile material cutoff treaty at the recent UN Conference on Disarmament.

In the coming weeks, India will investigate whether Pyongyang used uranium in its latest nuclear explosion. Its previous tests in 2006 and 2009 were believed to have been plutonium-based devices. The possible use of a uranium-based device would represent a significant threat and would confirm that the North is making tangible progress towards weaponizing its nuclear arsenal.

It also raises fears over the proliferation of such weapons to terrorist groups and other non-state actors as North Korea could sell such devices in exchange for much-needed revenue. After all, highly enriched uranium is harder to detect and consequently easier to export.

For India, the possible threat posed by nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors like the Lashkar-e-Taiba remains a distant yet real possibility. Therefore, New Delhi will likely use any evidence of a uranium-based device in Pyongyang’s latest test to highlight the alleged Pakistan-North Korea links.

Pakistan’s nuclear program uses highly enriched uranium. Islamabad dismissed earlier proliferation links with North Korea, following the Abdul Qadeer Khan scandal, on the grounds that Pyongyang’s program was plutonium-based.

A controversial book called Goodbye Shahzadi by journalist Shyam Bhatia, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s classmate at Oxford, suggests that Bhutto may have played a role in forging clandestine nuclear ties between Islamabad and Pyongyang. The book claims that North Korea offered Pakistan long-range missile technology to counter India’s missile development program in exchange for sensitive nuclear technology.

An unintended consequence of the North Korean explosion on February 12 could be global scrutiny of Pakistan’s own nuclear program. It could also decrease Islamabad’s chances of getting a civilian nuclear deal like the one granted to India by the United States in 2008 – a deal that Pakistan desperately needs to counter its power crisis and gain strategic parity with India.