The nuclear nightmare

by Brahma Chellaney

North Korea and Pakistan present unique nuclear-proliferation risks because they challenge the very premise on which the international anti-proliferation measures have been built.

While North Korea is often compared with Iran, the challenge it poses is more akin to Pakistan’s. Both Pakistan and North Korea are actual proliferation threats as opposed to Iran’s potential proliferation challenge. But while North Korea is a growing regional threat, Pakistan — with its expanding nuclear armory, terrorists and jihadist-infiltrated military and nuclear establishments — presents itself as an international nightmare.

In the past, these two countries have clandestinely bartered Pakistani uranium-enrichment knowhow for North Korean missile technology. Today, they are showing that the nuclear abolition debate is not germane to the key proliferation challenges in Asia, even if movement on the stalled disarmament process helps reduce incentives to proliferation in some other cases.

The present global anti-proliferation measures are tied to three key elements: The continued stability and credibility of the nonproliferation regime; the exercise of punitive power, when necessary, to enforce observance of global norms and rules; and the raising of costs for proliferators.

The outlook of North Korea and Pakistan, however, is founded on a fundamentally antithetical premise, which can be summed up as: Threaten to fail, then reap rewards.

For these two dissimilar nations, potential state failure actually serves as an incentive to extort ransom money internationally. Both have assiduously sought to leverage their weakness into strength diplomatically, with Pakistan more successful than North Korea. “We’ll fail if you don’t come to our support” is their refrain. That is another way of saying: “Pay up or face the consequences.”

In that light, it is proving very difficult to hold them to any international standards.

In fact, Pakistan’s success in extracting ever-more international aid has only emboldened North Korea to follow suit. Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test — its second in less than three years — is a desperate move to garner international aid.

If Islamabad can play nuclear poker to shield its export of terrorism and still get rewarded with $23.6 billion in international aid commitments just in the last six months ($5.5 billion of which came at the April donors conference in Tokyo), Pyongyang reckoned it could stage its own nuclear-and-missile show to draw the world’s attention.

While vowing to “take action” against North Korea over its test, U.S. President Barack Obama has set out to make Pakistan the single largest recipient of U.S. assistance in the world, leaving Israel and Egypt behind in the aid sweepstakes.

When Pakistan rakes in a windfall, North Korea can hardly be faulted for using the possibility of becoming a failed state as a means to collect some small change.

If Obama thought that succumbing to Pakistani demand would set no international precedent, North Korea’s ailing “dear leader” has made sure the chickens will come home to roost in Washington.

Even as America worries about Iran’s potential nuclear-weapons capability, its handling of the actual problem thrown up by Pakistan’s military-controlled weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and military-nurtured terrorists threatens to send the wrong signal to Tehran. According to a just-released Congressional Research Service report, Pakistan has approximately 60 nuclear warheads. It also has biological weapons, including pathogens no less dangerous than the H1N1 virus

Bountiful U.S. aid, in fact, is allowing Pakistan to divert more of its scarce resources to expand WMD capability, as illustrated by the two new plutonium-production reactors now under construction in Khushab with Chinese assistance. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chie’s of Staff, has been constrained to acknowledge at a May 14 congressional hearing that there is evidence showing Pakistan is expanding its nuclear arsenal.

Existing WMD in a country with jihadists are a matter of deep global concern; an expanding arsenal makes the scenario terrifying.

America has little incentive to start the flow of major international aid to North Korea, which, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted recently at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, poses no direct military threat to the U.S. at present. Strategically, North Korea is of little positive value to U.S. policy.

By contrast, China over the decades has maintained close ties with Pyongyang and Islamabad and, besides providing direct WMD aid to both, may have even encouraged North Korean-Pakistani technology exchanges. But Beijing lacks the leverage to control their steps and gets surprised now and then by their actions, as exemplified by the latest North Korean nuclear and missile testing.

More broadly, the traditional carrots-and-sticks approach of the nonproliferation regime has been derailed by the North Korea and Pakistan cases. The derailment happened because the punitive component was rendered blunt by the continuing intent of the major geopolitical players not to let North Korea or Pakistan become a failed state.

So, the more North Korea and Pakistan appear likely to become failed states, the more it becomes evident that the international response is constrained by the objective not to let them fail. The international approach toward them thus is to bark but not to bite.

In dealing with North Korea, China, Russia, the United States and Japan do not want to go so far as to cause the collapse of the regime. Although not necessarily motivated by the same interest, these powers are not geopolitically ready for Korean reunification, which will be a logical corollary to the regime collapse in Pyongyang. South Korea, too, is not prepared for that development because it would unleash a torrent of refugees and saddle Seoul with colossal reunification costs, as the continuing domestic costs of German reunification attest. So, not wanting the Stalinist North Korean state to unravel, the external players do little more than pass tough resolutions or statements.

Pakistan, for its part, has for long served as a useful pawn in Chinese and American policies. It remains Beijing’s “all-weather ally,” although its utility to U.S. policy has eroded to the extent that today it appears more of a strategic liability than an asset. Yet the old mind-set in Washington has not sufficiently changed. As a result, the deeper Pakistan has dug itself into a jihadist dungeon, the more the U.S. has gotten involved in that country. Such growing involvement, far from serving U.S. interests, has fueled an Islamist backlash in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is among the strongest in the world and where America is unfairly blamed for everything.

Washington also does not face up to another reality: Pakistan’s political border with Afghanistan has ceased to exist in practice. The so-called Durand Line — a British-colonial invention that left the large Pashtun community divided into two — now exists only in maps. Its disappearance is irreversible. Given that reality, how can U.S. policy expect to prop up the Pakistani state within political frontiers that, in part, no longer exist?

It is sad but true: The only way the international community can regain leverage against North Korea and Pakistan is to unflinchingly pursue a forward-thinking nonproliferation course that is not constrained by the specter of state collapse. That means standing up to them to disable their nuclear terror.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins).