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North Korea-Pakistan axis is legacy issue dating back to Bhutto 1970s

The North Korea-Pakistan nuclear axis that India has red-flagged, which has substantially contributed to Islamabad’s missile programme, is a legacy issue that dates back to the mid-1970s and not just began with AQ Khan’s illicit nuclear proliferation network.

The Pak-North Korea nuclear partnership remains the biggest obstacle for Islamabad’s entry into the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. New Delhi is worried that mainstreaming of North Korea might sidestep the issue of Pakistan’s role as a proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in what may strengthen Islamabad’s argument to enter elite club. On Tuesday, while welcoming the US-North Korea Summit, India’s foreign ministry said it hoped the “resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue will take into account and address our concerns about proliferation linkages extending to India’s neighbourhood”.

The foundations of the Islamabad-Pyongyang security partnership were forged during then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1976 visit to North Korea, officials here recalled. The Pak-N Korea axis deepened in the 1990s when ZA Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, was the PM. Benazir Bhutto purchased the Rodong long-range missiles from North Korea and in exchange, supplied Pyongyang with civilian nuclear technology, said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The Singapore meeting of (US President Donald) Trump and Kim Jong-un (of North Korea) has set the ball rolling on not just the nuclear but also East Asian security aspects. The meeting appeared to have legitimised the proliferation record of North Korea and thereby that of Pak as well,” China expert Srikanth Kondapalli told ET. “China, which opposed Indian clean waiver in IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and NSG because India did not sign NPT, is playing double standards. It did not pass a 1172 kind of resolution in UNSC on North Korea (the 1998 resolution had condemned nuclear tests by India and Pakistan). It violated UNSC sanctions by exporting dual use materials and technologies to NK. Now it is not asking NK to sign NPT,” he said.

Pakistan had allegedly exported gas centrifuges to help North Korea enrich uranium and build a nuclear bomb and has not fully adhered to UN sanctions against Pyongyang, another official noted. Islamabad’s nuclear technology assistance to North Korea during the late 1990s corresponded with an increase in Chinese support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme as an all-weather friend.

While Pakistan became an ally in the US war against terror after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Islamabad’s military cooperation with North Korea continued under then President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf even prevented the US from interrogating AQ Khan, the Pak nuclear scientist who assisted the nuclear programme of North Korea. The Pakistani government declared Khan a “free citizen” in 2009. Two years later, Khan alleged that the Pakistani army had provided North Korea with nuclear materials in lieu of a $3 million bribe, confirming collaboration between the Pak Army and the North Korean establishment.

Expansion in the Pakistan-North Korea axis is a result of the Sino-Pak friendship. The Chinese government has tacitly supported Pakistan’s support for Pyongyang to break the near isolation of the East Asian country, according to experts.

Shirley A Khan, an adviser to the US Congress on Asian security affairs, claimed in 2009 that Islamabad’s nuclear technology assistance to North Korea during the late 1990s was simultaneously done with an increase in Chinese support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme. This also helped Pakistan’s strategic importance to grow vis-à-vis China. China has also defended Pakistan from international criticism of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons capabilities and non-proliferation track record.

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