A lurking danger

North Korea: the new nuclear power

The world did not easily accept India as a new nuclear power on the world stage after Pokhran II series of nuclear tests and the declaration by then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that India had decided to develop nuclear weapons to protect its national security.

The third nuclear test by North Korea has left little doubt that the Korean peninsula has been nuclearised and the efforts by the US through a six-party initiative to persuade Pyongyang to abandon the nuclear weapon path has failed.

It was not an unexpected development in the backdrop of American failure to dissuade Pakistan from going nuclear despite considerable US leverage over Pakistan — an off and on ally of the United States. In contrast, Washington had absolutely no leverage over the North Korean regime; it repeatedly urged China to pressurise Pyongyang to give up the nuclear weapon ambition, and expected sanctions to work wonders.

North Korea’s emergence as the new nuclear weapon power in the Pacific has direct security implications for India. But the recent and third nuclear test by Pyongyang has hardly raised any concern in India.

Except a soft proclamation by the Government of India and a few articles in some newspapers, the nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula has gone virtually unnoticed in the policy analysis community in the country. In other words, despite a decade long policy of ‘Look East,’ defence and security developments in the Asia Pacific region generates little heat in the country.

We in India overreact to developments along our international border in the Northeast and Northwest and play down hazardous developments elsewhere in Asia. While critical security related developments are unfolding in the Asia Pacific in recent years, India’s attention appears to be focused on political turmoil in west and Southwest Asia. Undoubtedly turbulent events in West Asia deserve careful attention, but developments in east and Southeast Asia equally deserve more consideration and careful deliberation.

America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia strategy, Japan’s island disputes with South Korea, Russia and Japan, China’s growing brazenness in South China Sea have alerted the Indian foreign policy community, but the most crucial development with direct bearing on Indian security interests is the emergence of North Korea as a new nuclear weapon power.

 India was never part of the multilateral initiative to address the nuclear question in the Korean peninsula. While Washington has been pressing New Delhi to support its policy on Iran, it has never considered inclusion of India in the initiative to deal with North Korean nuclear issue.

Impact peace

Government of India does not appear to have shown any interest either on this issue. The Indian government has certainly extended its support to western initiatives, especially in the UN Security Council. New Delhi’s usual response to nuclear tests by the North Korean regime has been that it was against the UN Security Council resolution and that it would adversely impact peace stability in the Korean peninsula. Significantly, China and Pakistan have very close ties with the North Korean regime. While China protects North Korea from economic collapse, Pakistan is suspected to have had WMD cooperation with North Korea. Awareness of this nexus perhaps informs India’s stand on North Korean nuclear weapon programme. But is the Indian response adequate to tackle the adverse implication on Indian security interest?
Although it is appropriate for India to establish vigorous economic and security cooperation with South Korea, it is unseemly for India to refrain from maintaining working relations with Pyongyang. Both China and Pakistan keep close cooperation with North Korea and simultaneously with the United States. Why cannot India do that?


North Korea is now a de facto nuclear weapon power with powerful delivery systems. It has a record of maintaining strategic autonomy and surviving external pressures. The current international discourse intermittently characterise North Korea as a backward, poverty stricken outlier state, but the US and its allies in the nonproliferation regime have failed to restrain China and Pakistan from keeping close cooperation with North Korea to an extent that enables Pyongyang to survive sanctions.

India does not and will not support nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula. But the government will have to take appropriate steps to discourage North Korea from bolstering Pakistan’s missile programme.


Sooner than later, the United States and its allies will realise that North Korea’s de facto nuclear weapon status cannot be undone. It is a fait accompli that needs to be addressed. Before long the language of engagement with North Korea will enter the international nuclear discourse. Should India not prepare itself in advance to handle this issue in a proactive manner to protect Indian interests?

The ministry of external affairs’ web site gives a glaring example of the level of engagement India has with South Korea and North Korea. The link on North Korea is virtually empty. The vacant space needs to filled up in keeping with India’s national interest.

The internet and other media are full of information and opinion on the North Korean nuclear programme. Very little is there on what Pyongyang has to say. The other side of the story must be heard to enable engagement of a country that has remained isolated from the mainstream international relations for decades.
No country with nuclear weapons and delivery systems should remain isolated in the interest of international security and stability. Maybe there is some food for thought here for Indian officials dealing with the Asian security issues.

(The writer is a professor at JNU, New Delhi)

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