Amid all the attention around the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh’s surprising trip to Pyongyang received little attention. Singh showed up in Pyongyang, with the Indian press only taking note of his presence there after the country’s state-run daily Rodong Sinmun ran a story on his visit with a photograph.
The visit was the first involving an Indian official of ministerial rank in North Korea in two decades and came at an unusual time of international scrutiny toward North Korea’s nuclear program. New Delhi and Pyongyang have normal diplomatic ties and a complex relationship.
Last year, India agreed to sign on to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and significantly curtailed its trading relationship with North Korea — albeit not enough to earn India scrutiny from the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea, which underlined ongoing Indian exports of precious metals and stones to the country.
India has also ranked among North Korea’s top trading partners in recent years, coming in as the country’s second largest import and export partner. (India’s overall trade with North Korea is dwarfed by the country’s first-largest trading partner, China, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of North Korea’s overseas trade.)
According to a statement released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Singh met with North Korean Vice President Kim Yong-dae to discuss “a range of issues covering political, regional, economic, educational and cultural cooperation between the two countries.
The meeting also addressed one of India’s chief concerns with North Korea: “the threat from nuclear proliferation.” India has expressed serious concerns to North Korea about its proliferation of ballistic missile technology to Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear-capable Ghauri medium-range ballistic missile, for instance, is an indigenously modified North Korean Nodong.
Beyond India’s specific and long-standing concerns with North Korea, New Delhi may sense an opportunity with Kim Jong-un’s recent decision to initiate high-stakes diplomacy with Seoul, Washington, and Beijing. Should North Korea’s regional predicament shift dramatically following ongoing diplomatic processes, including the upcoming summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim, India may seek to expand the ambit of its bilateral relationship with Pyongyang.
India, North Korea, and the CTBT
Singh’s trip to Pyongyang is particularly interesting viewed in light of recent comments by North Korea’s ambassador to Switzerland, Han Tae-song, reported after the Indian minister of state had left Pyongyang. Han, addressing a United Nations disarmament conference in Geneva, opened a door for North Korea to potentially sign onto the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
“The discontinuation of nuclear tests is an important process for global disarmament, and the DPRK will join the international desire and efforts for a total halt of nuclear tests,” Han was quoted as saying by the Korean Central News Agency. His remarks come after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un publicly pledged to close the Punggye-ri nuclear test site; Kim’s order is being carried out, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
North Korea is the only country to have conducted nuclear tests in the 21st century. Its sixth test, conducted in September 2017, was the largest explosion on earth in some 25 years. That Pyongyang would now possibly moot signing the CTBT may appear incredible on the surface, but it may be likely.
Part of North Korea’s strategy with its ongoing diplomatic overtures to South Korea, the United States, and even China is to normalize itself as a nuclear weapons power. The country famously withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 to develop and test nuclear weapons, but now, with its nuclear weapons program complete, Kim Jong-un wants to pursue economic development while retaining nuclear weapons—something he’s recently described as the country’s “treasured sword.”
After shutting down his nuclear test site, Kim may look to win North Korea a degree of goodwill as a responsible nuclear state, interested in the cause of global nuclear disarmament, by signing on to the CTBT.
The treaty has yet to enter into force and can only do so once all so-called Annex 2 states — delineated in the treaty text — ratify the agreement. Eight states have yet to ratify the agreement. These are China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States. Of these eight, only three have not even signed the treaty. This short list includes just India, Pakistan, and North Korea. (India and Pakistan are also not members of the NPT, but never signed that treaty, unlike North Korea, which did and then withdrew.)
Though there’s little evidence this was on Singh’s agenda in Pyongyang — indeed, Singh would be far from the ideal Indian envoy to discuss the issue with North Korea and his trip was likely planned weeks, if not months, in advance — India is likely to take interest in a North Korean decision to sign onto the 1996 CTBT. If Pyongyang were to sign the treaty, India and Pakistan would remain the sole Annex 2 nonsignatory states to the treaty.
A Real Issue for New Delhi?
India’s reasons for not signing the CTBT are based in complex and long-standing reservations based both in principles and in self-interest, and related to its concerns in the 1990s about the NPT’s indefinite extension. The NPT permanently legalized the nuclear arsenals of the five states that tested weapons prior to January 1, 1967, and India’s position is that the treaty was fundamentally discriminatory, creating nuclear haves and have-nots.
Nevertheless, since conducting its own weaponized nuclear tests 20 years ago this month, India has been remarkably successful in avoiding global censure and opprobrium over its nuclear weapons program and becoming a normalized nuclear weapons power itself. Much of the credit for this achievement is usually owed to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to enter a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India in 2005 and subsequent U.S. support for India winning a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008. India has since joined multiple export control and nonproliferation regimes, including the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group, to bolster its credentials as a responsible nuclear state.
Despite all this, India’s refusal to sign the CTBT remains a nagging issue for New Delhi — one that comes up in diplomatic interactions with even friendly states, including the United States. (The Trump administration is unlikely to press this, however.) In the lead-up to India’s civil nuclear agreement with Japan, too, New Delhi’s refusal to sign the CTBT was an obstacle to be overcome — albeit not insurmountable. Most recently, India and the CTBT have come into focus as New Delhi sought to apply for membership in the NSG — an endeavor in which it failed to succeed.
Ultimately, few expect India to sign the CTBT today, but when India’s NSG membership bid inevitably comes back around on New Delhi’s agenda, the issue will return to the fore. Amid all this, should North Korea sign the CTBT — something that appears within sight now — India may find itself in an unsavory position as the only Annex 2 nonsignatory with Pakistan. If there’s anything India loathes, its parallelism between its nuclear weapons program and Pakistan’s. Even if Pyongyang waits to ratify the CTBT until the United States does, as I suspect it will, New Delhi may find itself under additional pressure to sign. After all, if North Korea, the world’s foremost nuclear pariah state, can put pen to paper on the treaty, why shouldn’t India? (Or so the argument would go.)
India’s been remarkably consistent in its opposition to signing the CTBT so, ultimately, North Korea signing the treaty may change nothing at all for New Delhi. Indeed, North Korea’s claimed successful two-stage thermonuclear weapon test in September 2017 may even reinvigorate Indian interest in a successful two-stage thermonuclear weapon test of its own. (A 1998 attempt to test a two-stage device is thought to have been a failure, resulting in a fizzle.)
North Korea’s intentions toward the CTBT still remain ambiguous, but what’s less so is that India will take an interest in how Kim Jong-un chooses to proceed with the treaty. Stay tuned.