Revisiting the Nuclear Nexus between Pakistan, China, and North Korea

Asia is currently brewing with the heat of missile testing and rhetorical statements made by leaders with nuclear weapons like Pakistan and North Korea. North Korea and Pakistan are two countries with different socio-cultural and political structures but share an engrossing relationship i.e., nuclear power and technology, and are geographically destined with the same neighbor, China. Recently, tensions have flared up in different regions of Asia due to the military standoff between India and China, Pakistan threatening India with nuclear war, and North Korea’s barrage of missile tests. The common factor between them is nuclear weapons, and this has always been a concern for the world, especially when it involves a hostile nation to the U.S. like Iraq, Libya, and recently, Iran.

The consequences faced by them are well known, whether it’s the Iraq invasion (2003) by the U.S. on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction or the killing (2011) of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi after he handed over its nuclear program to the U.S. (2004). In 2015, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Therefore, the only state that actually succeeded in developing nuclear weapons is Pakistan. Hence, there is no other model for North Korea to follow other than Pakistan.

Pakistan began to seek nuclear weapons to deter India, especially after its humiliating loss in the 1971 Indo-Pak war and India’s first nuclear test in 1972. The rise of Pakistan as a nuclear power has also coincided with North Korea as a nuclear power in many ways for several decades. Given this backdrop, how about Pakistan-North Korea nuclear calculus? Do they share any relations between them? Evolution of both countries nuclear status indicate that both Pakistan and North Korea does share a connection.

Link between North Korea and Pakistan

Pakistan and North Korea share few commonalities, but their interaction regarding the development of nuclear weapons is indisputable. The foundation was laid after Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited North Korea in 1976 and was further strengthened in the 1990s. Pakistan, by then, had acquired the capability to build nuclear weapons using highly enriched uranium cores but lacked nuclear delivery systems. It had F-16 aircraft for delivery but needed ballistic missiles to secure a nuclear capability strike. However, due to the U.S.-led international pressure to restrict trade in ballistic and cruise missiles, Pakistan turned towards China and North Korea. Pakistan purchased some short-range M-11 ballistic missiles from China in the early 1990s. But the U.S. pressure on China to comply with MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) guidelines and not sell longer-range missiles paved the way for Pakistan to visit North Korea in 1992 to view a No-dong prototype, and a deal was finally brokered in the late 1995. Pakistan negotiated the sale of No-dong ballistic missiles which can deploy liquid-fuel engines and deliver a 700-1000 kg payload over a distance of 1000-1300 km. 

On its part, post the Agreed Framework (1994), North Korea had agreed to shut down its plutonium-based program. Therefore, Pakistan’s uranium enrichment technology was attractive as it would enable Pyongyang to continue their nuclear efforts. Meanwhile, by 1996 Pakistan’s economy was in doldrums, and it fell short of hard currency to pay North Korea for the missiles. It was suspected that Pakistan might have decided to transfer nuclear technology instead of cash payments to North Korea. The missile cooperation between Pyongyang and Islamabad became public after Pakistan tested a No-dong missile, also known as ‘Ghauri’ in Pakistan, in April 1998. However, despite all efforts by the U.S. and international agencies, cooperation between the two countries continued.

Chinese Assistance

Chinese assistance has proven vital for both North Korea and Pakistan and helped them in their nuclear program. An American agency claimed that one stage of the new North Korean missiles was a replica of the Chinese CSS-2 Missile. Simultaneously, during the 1980s, China allegedly supplied weapons-grade uranium, technical assistance for uranium enrichment, and plant know-how. Pakistan’s gas centrifuge nuclear weapons program closely resembles the Chinese nuclear program. The gas centrifuge nuclear enrichment process requires ring magnets for its operation, and in 1996, Beijing was said to have delivered the same to Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan Air Force’s C-130 has shuttled between Islamabad and Pyongyang, trading nuclear enrichment technology and equipment for long-range missiles as recently as July 2002. China helped in these flights by refueling them at their air force bases, and it is alleged that some ring magnets were added on the Islamabad-to-Pyongyang leg.

One prominent personality Gen. Xiong Guangkai played an important role in the North Korea-China-Pakistan axis. It is believed that Gen. Xiong is either the PLA broker for the North Korea-Pakistan swap process, or else he sits on an as-yet-unidentified committee that brokers this trade. In 1998, Gen. Xiong visited North Korea, and within one month of the visit, North Korea fired a multi-stage missile over the Japanese home islands. The missile is considered the same type North Korea gave to Pakistan. In early 2002, Gen. Xiong also visited Islamabad and signed “Joint Military Production” and “Joint Defense” agreements with Pakistan, raising suspicion in Washington and New Delhi about the linkages. After his visit, the C-130s started making regular Islamabad-Pyongyang runs, which made the intelligence community in India and the United States strongly believe that Xiong is the vital link within the North Korea and Pakistan swap. But everything happened because Pakistan chose to sell/trade its nuclear technology with others.

Pakistan’s Alleged Role in Nuclear Marketing

Pakistan has been closely linked with hostile nations and Dr. A.Q. Khan (also called the father of Pakistan’s “Islamic atomic bomb”) was involved in sharing nuclear-weapons technology and knowhow with countries. In Pakistan, he was hailed as a hero for making Pakistan the only nuclear-powered Islamic state in the world. Abroad, he ran a clandestine network selling nuclear weapons technology to nations hostile to the U.S., be it Libya, Iran, and North Korea. It started when Khan reportedly visited North Korea 13 times and proposed a barter deal to compensate North Korea for ballistic missiles with uranium-enrichment technology. A Japanese report stated that Pakistan had exported actual centrifuge rotors (2,000-3,000) to North Korea. A Pakistani official involved in Khan’s investigation reportedly said North Korea ordered P-1 centrifuge components from 1997 to 2000. 

The scope of Pakistan’s cooperation with Libya and Iran (including P-1 and P-2 designs, a nuclear weapon design for Libya, and some complete rotor assemblies) poses significant questions about how much other help Khan might have given to North Korea. For Iran and Libya, Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, the alleged chief financier of an international nuclear trafficking network run by Khan, told Malaysian police that Khan asked him to send two containers of used centrifuge parts from Pakistan to Iran in 1994 or 1995. Tahir also said Libya received “a certain amount of” enriched uranium from Pakistan in 2001, according to the police. Recently, amid the recent political turmoil in Pakistan and growing power of the Taliban, the fear of black marketing of nuclear technology grew, making the U.S. blacklist six Pakistani companies.

Suspicion Turned into Reality

In 2000, the U.S. shared evidence of centrifuge trading between Pakistan and North Korea with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf – who pinned all the blame on Khan. By June 2002, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Pakistan was indeed the source of Pyongyang’s secret uranium enrichment program by providing them with centrifuges. Meanwhile, in 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment in Iran – twice. For years Iran had denied that it had a nuclear weapons program, so they declared that the materials were secondhand, originating from another country. Pakistan – and, in turn, Khan – was implicated. In October 2003, the British and Americans intercepted a ship carrying equipment to build nuclear weapons in Libya. Evidence connected the shipment with Khan. For one thing, the Libyan enrichment facility was being built based on the same stolen URENCO design as Pakistan’s rendered by Khan during his working days. 

Finally, in 2004, Pakistan’s AQ Khan admitted to having transferred nuclear technology to North Korea and other nations and alleged that $3 million was paid to Pakistan’s former army chief as a bribe to get the nuclear information and showed much evidence. However, Pakistan claims that “rogue scientists” driven by “ambition or greed” have been behind secretly transferred nuclear technology and stresses that this was done without the knowledge of the government. A claim that seems highly improbable as technology as precious as nuclear cannot be traded without the knowledge of the government, and this nuclear trading has put global security at risk. Recently, the U.S. president called Pakistan as “one of the dangerous nations in the world” as it has “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.” Hence, there is an urgent need to make states involved in nuclear trading accountable, as any miscalculation would be a catastrophe not only in the region but the world over like the Russia-Ukraine war has affected the world in various ways.