OXFORD, ENGLAND – On Aug. 23, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s special assistant on foreign affairs, Syed Tariq Fatemi, embarked on a four day trip to Belarus and Kazakhstan. As Belarus and Kazakhstan are strongly opposed to nuclear proliferation, Sharif sent Fatemi to the Commonwealth of Independent States region to bolster international support for Pakistan’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which rival India is also actively seeking to join. The Pakistani government hopes that Islamabad’s NSG accession will ease concerns about the potential distribution of Pakistani nuclear weapons to terrorist groups.
Even though China enthusiastically supports Pakistan’s NSG bid, Pakistan’s partnership with North Korea could derail Sharif’s aspirations of joining the nonproliferation organization. Since the 1970s, Pakistan and North Korea have cooperated extensively on the development of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technologies. Pakistan’s strong alliance with China and the legacy of a major scandal linking the Pakistani military to North Korea’s nuclear program have prevented Islamabad from joining U.N. efforts to diplomatically isolate the North.
While economic links between Pakistan and North Korea were established during the early 1970s, the foundations of the modern Islamabad-Pyongyang security partnership were forged during Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1976 visit to North Korea. During his Pyongyang trip, Bhutto struck a delicate balance between U.S. and Chinese policies toward the Korean Peninsula.
In line with Chinese preferences, Bhutto insisted that Korea’s reunification could only occur after extensive dialogue with North Korean officials. To incorporate Washington’s position, Bhutto argued that the United States and Japan needed to be involved as arbiters in the Korean reunification process. Bhutto’s carefully crafted policy ensured that Pakistan was able to deepen ties with North Korea without antagonizing either of Islamabad’s principal international allies.
The Pakistan-North Korea partnership expanded significantly during the 1990s, as Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and close relationship with the Taliban isolated Islamabad from the international community. The Chinese government refused to sell Pakistan M-11 missiles during this period, as Beijing attempted to normalize relations with the U.S. that had been strained by the deadly crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent Western arms embargo on China.
During the early 1990s, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto purchased Rodong long-range missiles from North Korea. In exchange, Pakistan supplied Pyongyang with “civilian nuclear technology” and encouraged North Korean students to study at Pakistani universities.
Even though Pakistan became a vital ally in the U.S. war on terror after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Islamabad’s military cooperation with North Korea continued under Pervez Musharraf’s watch. In 2002, U.S. officials announced that Pakistan had exported gas centrifuges to help North Korea enrich uranium and construct a nuclear bomb. While Pakistani military officials denied their involvement in this scheme, the report’s release did not trigger an official downgrade in the Islamabad-Pyongyang security partnership.
After the 2002 report’s release, Musharraf prevented the U.S. from interrogating A.Q. Khan, a prominent nuclear scientist who assisted the nuclear programs of North Korea, Iran and Libya. The Pakistani government declared Khan a “free citizen” in 2009. Senior U.S. officials emphatically opposed Pakistan’s exoneration of Khan, insisting that Khan remained a “serious proliferation risk.”
Even though Pakistan has avoided overt military cooperation with North Korea in recent years, Islamabad remains unwilling to fully comply with U.N. sanctions against the North. Although the last regular sea cargo route between Pakistan and North Korea was suspended in 2010, NK News recently reported that at least one major Pakistani company offers shipping service to Pyongyang.
In recent months, many Indian media outlets have released reports on Pakistani nuclear technology sales to North Korea. These allegations remain unsubstantiated. However, the presence of a North Korean consulate in Karachi and an embassy in Islamabad demonstrates that U.N. sanctions have not hindered diplomatic cooperation between the two.
Even though Islamabad’s North Korea links have sullied Pakistan’s international reputation, Pakistan has maintained its ties with North Korea for two reasons. First, Pakistan’s relationship with North Korea is a powerful display of its loyalty to China. The Chinese government has tacitly endorsed Pakistan’s diplomatic support for Pyongyang during a period of near-complete international isolation.
As Shirley A. Khan, an adviser to the U.S. Congress on Asian security affairs, noted in 2009, Islamabad’s nuclear technology assistance to North Korea during the late 1990s corresponded with an increase in Chinese support for Pakistan’s nuclear program. Pakistan’s strategic importance to China also grew. By using Pakistan as a funnel for nuclear materials entering North Korea, China could strengthen the North’s military capabilities without jeopardizing its intelligence sharing partnership with the U.S.
China has also defended Pakistan from international criticism of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons capabilities and its nonproliferation track record. If Sharif were to unilaterally suspend Pakistan’s diplomatic relationship with North Korea, China could retaliate by supporting greater international scrutiny of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The U.S. and most Western countries support India’s NSG membership bid; Pakistan needs China’s backing to accede to the NSG. Therefore, Sharif is unlikely to take drastic action against Pyongyang that would rankle Beijing.
Second, if Sharif suspended Pakistan’s diplomatic relationship with North Korea, the Pakistani government would likely have to reopen the A.Q. Khan case for its break with Pyongyang to appear credible. An investigation of Khan’s North Korea links could discredit the Pakistani military’s international reputation.
In 2011, Khan alleged that the Pakistani Army had provided North Korea with nuclear materials in exchange for a $3 million bribe. If Khan’s claims are confirmed by an in-depth investigation, the relationship between the Pakistani military and Sharif’s government could be irreparably strained.
The Khan case has been complicated by allegations that Khan was a much less significant player in Pakistan’s nuclear material sales to North Korea than his public statements have implied. If an inquiry into the Khan case revealed that the Pakistani military sanctioned nuclear material sales to the North Korean military without Khan’s facilitation, ex-President Pervez Musharraf and numerous senior Pakistani generals could be implicated. This outcome would be highly destabilizing for the Pakistani Army and could increase the likelihood of a military coup against Sharif’s government.
For over 40 years, Pakistan has remained one of North Korea’s most consistent partners. As Pakistan wants to demonstrate to the international community that it is a rational actor that can be trusted with nuclear weapons, the future of the long-standing Islamabad-Pyongyang partnership has been called into question. Notwithstanding these concerns and Pakistan’s ongoing NSG application, Sharif’s political interests make a radical shift in Islamabad’s North Korea policy unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Samuel Ramani is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a journalist who writes regularly for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. © 2016, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency
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