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DPRK’s Nuclear Provocations and the Indian Response

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 27, 2016

    On 9 September 2016, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) defied international pressure and conducted its fifth nuclear test. Criticising the test, the Government of India described it as a “matter of grave concern”.1 India not only urged DPRK to “refrain from such tests,” which gravely affect regional peace and stability, but also noted that the test violated Pyongyang’s international obligations and contradicts the denuclearization effort in the Korean peninsula. The Indian statement also expressed concern over the proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies that have a bearing on “India’s national security”,2 alluding to the cooperation between DPRK and Pakistan in nuclear and missile technologies, possibly with China’s backing.

    DPRK’s nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan is an established fact. Security relations between the two countries go back to the 1970s, when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto visited DPRK in 1976. In the 1990s, Pakistan purchased long-range missiles from DPRK and, in return, helped the latter with nuclear enrichment technologies and dual use items. Pakistan’s assistance for DPRK’s uranium enrichment programme was a globally reported matter a few years ago when the A.Q. Khan scandal broke. India, on its part, has repeatedly expressed concern over DPRK-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation. For instance, while responding to the DPRK’s nuclear test in January 2016, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also observed that the “proliferation links between North-East Asia and India’s neighbourhood are well known.”3

    Yet, this Indian concern has received little attention from the US, Japan and South Korea, the three countries that are most immediately concerned by the DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests. From time to time, the US and South Korea have exerted pressure on DPRK to give up its nuclear programme through various means, mainly through UN sanctions, but such pressure has clearly not been effective. The regime of Kim Jong-Un seems to have an unswerving approach of defying these sanctions and carrying forward its nuclear and missile programmes. Besides, China’s soft approach on this issue does not serve as a deterrent for DPRK. What remains problematic, however, especially from the Indian point of view, is that the international community worries a great deal about DPRK’s nuclear and missile programmes without actually acknowledging the expertise network that Pyongyang currently maintains with Islamabad and which may emerge as a bigger problem in future.

    DPRK’s fifth nuclear test significantly advances its nuclear weapons capability, which is a source of strength for the Kim Jong-Un regime. As widely reported, the fifth nuclear test is the “biggest ever” test carried out by DPRK. Moreover, by conducting this test, DPRK claims that it has developed the expertise to mate nuclear warheads with strategic ballistic missiles.4 Debates continue among experts, however, over DPRK’s capability in this regard. What must worry the international community though is DPRK’s sustained and determined effort in this direction.

    Much to India’s concern, these repeated tests have helped DPRK develop expertise in the use of plutonium, which enables the miniaturisation of the warhead for fitting into a missile system.5 Given the history of DPRK’s cooperation with Pakistan, apprehensions abound about Pyongyang sharing this expertise with Islamabad. Such cooperation will boost Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability, primarily its ability to miniaturise nuclear warheads. That, in turn, will enhance Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons programme and enable it to employ short- and medium-range missiles mated with nuclear warheads for battlefield purposes.

    India is of the view that Pakistan failed to conduct a plutonium device test in 1998. Since then, Pakistan has been continuously trying to develop weapons-grade plutonium devices so that nuclear warheads can be miniaturised. This deficiency in Pakistan’s nuclear capability may be filled by DPRK’s assistance. Even though Pakistan has received significant Chinese assistance for its nuclear programme, particularly in terms of designing and supplying the Khushab heavy water reactor and the Chasma nuclear reactor complex which houses the plutonium reprocessing facility, it is not yet fully established whether such Chinese assistance has helped Pakistan acquire the capability to develop plutonium-based miniaturised nuclear warheads. Also, the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is a worrying factor for India, given the plethora of extremist groups operating inside that country, some of which moreover have carried out significant attacks against key military installations with impunity.

    Of even greater concern is China, a P-5 member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which shows no concern about the nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and DPRK. Instead, China strongly backs Pakistan’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This amply indicates that China endorses Pakistan-DPRK nuclear cooperation. In fact, China’s approach towards the DPRK has always been complex and highly nuanced. Like most major and important regional powers, China has condemned DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests. But it differs with them on how to handle the issue including the implementation of UN sanctions. Despite the growing international pressure on DPRK, Beijing has constantly backed Kim Jong-Un’s regime by supplying food and other assistance. Notably, China continues to be the biggest trading partner of DPRK. In some ways, Beijing’s ‘special’ relations with Pyongyang have encouraged the regime in DPRK to further pursue its nuclear and missile programmes.

    Given all this, the international community needs to take a fresh look not only at DPRK’s nuclear and missile programmes but also at the Pakistan-DPRK nuclear cooperation which has a subtle Chinese endorsement. India’s concern on DPRK’s nuclear connection therefore needs fresh contemplation. India has so far severely and repeatedly condemned DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests. This has not, however, served New Delhi’s purpose. India has to do a lot more to make its concerns count. Expressing “deep concern” over DPRK’s rocket launch on 8 February 2016, the Government of India called on Pyongyang to refrain from such launches that affect regional peace and stability.6 Similarly, India condemned DPRK’s 6 January 2016 self-declared thermonuclear test.

    Despite such stern condemnations, scepticism has recently been expressed in the media about India’s adherence to UN sanctions on DPRK. It has been contended that India is allowing science students from DPRK to study in Dehradun, ostensibly in violation of the norms of UN sanctions.7 Terming such reports as “baseless”, the MEA has asserted that “India is fully aware of its obligations under the UN Charter and has been exemplary in its implementation of UN sanctions including those related to DPRK.”8 New Delhi has also clarified that the enrolment of North Korean students in Dehradun was with the prior knowledge of UN representatives. Finally, the MEA also pointed out that India is a “victim of proliferation in its extended neighbourhood” and it is therefore incorrect to suggest that India supports in anyway a violation of UN sanctions on DPRK.9

    Overall, India’s stance on DPRK’s tests rests on three broad premises. One, DPRK tests violate its international obligations. Two, such tests affect regional peace and stability, and thus India’s security as well. And, three, DPRK must refrain from further tests. A response of this nature is, however, customary. Neither does it create the required diplomatic space to discuss with the major powers the possible effects of DPRK’s nuclear and missile programmes in India’s immediate neighbourhood nor does it create a condition for exerting pressure to prevent further DPRK-Pakistan nuclear cooperation.

    How should India then approach the issue? First, India needs to strengthen DPRK-specific bilateral dialogues with the US, Japan and South Korea, countries that are most concerned about Pyongyang’s repeated tests. New Delhi’s approach has not been effective in this respect. India has a “global partnership” with the US, but DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests have not really figured in India-US bilateral dialogues even though nuclear issues have been the dominant aspect of most of their bilateral talks in recent years. Having an exclusive discussion on DPRK’s nuclear tests will be in the interests of both countries since they are both affected by the former’s provocative nuclear behaviour. India must therefore develop a more nuanced understanding with the US on DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests since both adhere to the goal of strengthening the global non-proliferation regime.10 This will help India highlight its concerns more intently.

    Similarly, with Japan, India should not only have a shared understanding but also carry out a specific dialogue on the consequences of DPRK’s tests. Both India and Japan have expressed concerns over the “uranium enrichment activities” of DPRK but only periphrastically. More needs to be done to concretise these concerns in terms of sharing information and forging bilateral discussions. This will help India raise its concerns about DPRK-Pakistan nuclear cooperation more purposely. Besides, it will also encourage India and Japan to forge ahead in bilateral talks on a civil nuclear agreement, an issue which has not progressed much between them.

    In addition, DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests must also become an important point of India’s discussions with South Korea. Both India and South Korea have often discussed and expressed mutual concerns over the deteriorating security situation in the Korean peninsula. But this discussion has been generic in nature and lacks concreteness. New Delhi and Seoul decided to establish a 2+2 dialogue mechanism on 18 May 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Seoul, but no substantial progress has taken place to push ahead this dialogue mechanism.11 DPRK’s tests as well as matters concerning the network of nuclear relations between Pyongyang and Islamabad must be priorities in these discussions. Further, establishing a stronger intelligence sharing mechanism relating to the Korean peninsula will be in the interests of India and South Korea.

    Apart from strengthening bilateral dialogues with countries that are most concerned about DPRK’s continuing nuclear and missile tests, India concurrently needs to consider how it can effectively raise the matter in regional forums. Identifying appropriate regional mechanisms, partaking in it and forming a dialogue mechanism will help India highlight its concerns regionally. One such mechanism is the North-East Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI). The Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea initiated the NAPCI process to foster peace and cooperation within an ambit of “infrastructure of trust” in North-East Asia. India should try and become a part of this process, and it must pursue its participation in this process with South Korea. Both Prime Minister Modi and President Park have agreed to “find complementarities” between India’s Act East policy and South Korea’s NAPCI initiative. India is not part of the NAPCI, while countries such as United States, China, Japan, Russia and Mongolia are part of this process.

    Besides, India must also establish special communications with members of the Six-Party Talks – South Korea, North Korea, US, China, Japan and Russia. Although the Six-Party Talks process has become irrelevant at present, there is hope that it might be revived at some stage. Moreover, having a dialogue with members of the Six-Party Talks will serve India’s interest since all these countries, with the exception of DPRK, have a ‘strategic partnership’ with India. Also, given China’s special relations with Pakistan and lately Russia’s growing relations with Pakistan, India may find it apposite to raise its longstanding concerns at this forum.

    Finally, India needs to adopt a savvier approach towards DPRK. Its policy towards DPRK has so far been measured and it has maintained a balance between ‘two Koreas’. Even as India has developed a relationship with South Korea that is ‘strategic and special’, it has also managed to maintain a good understanding with DPRK. Taking advantage of this understanding, India must initiate a pointed discussion with Pyongyang on its concerns about DPRK-Pakistan nuclear cooperation with a view to arriving at a mutual accommodation of each other’s concerns and expectations.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.