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PAKISTAN: The North Korea Connection

November 1, 2002
This publication is now archived.

Will allegations that Pakistan recently aidedNorth Korea's nuclear arms program affect U.S.-Pakistanirelations?

Probably not dramatically, experts say. For all the Bush administration's displeasure about the North Korea connection, the United States relies heavily on Pakistan for assistance in the war on terrorism. On November 25, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he has repeatedly warned Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that "inappropriate" contact between Pakistan and North Korea would result in "consequences." Powell added that Musharraf has assured him that no such relationship now exists. The White House has so far refused to publicly acknowledge any recent links between Pakistan and North Korea's nuclear arms program, and experts say that U.S.-Pakistani talks on the issue will likely be kept private.

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What are the allegations?

According to a November 24, 2002 article in the New York Times, North Korea obtained "many of the designs for gas centrifuges and much of the machinery" required to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons from Pakistan. In return, North Korea--one of the world's most impoverished and isolated countries--reportedly provided Pakistan with ballistic-missile parts, perhaps as recently as July 2002. A Pakistani military spokesman dismissed the Times report, which was based on interviews with U.S., Pakistani, and South Korean officials, as "absolutely incorrect."

Why would the United States be reluctant to punish Pakistanfor helping North Korea get nuclear weapons?

Experts say that international terrorism is an even bigger concern for the Bush administration than the prospect of North Korea getting the bomb. Since September 11, U.S. and Pakistani authorities have worked together to capture al-Qaeda operatives, and some experts say that Osama bin Laden himself may be hiding in Pakistan. In addition, the White House is wary of doing anything--perhaps such as cutting foreign aid--that might undermine Musharraf, who must grapple with Islamist elements in his own intelligence and security forces. Musharraf's domestic position is far from stable. In last month's general elections, a coalition of Islamist parties promising to establish Islamic law and push U.S. forces out of Pakistan won a record 20 percent of ballots. Muslim fundamentalists had never before received more than five percent of the vote.

Has the United States had good relations with Pakistanin the past?

At times. After Pakistan was created in 1947, the United States began providing the fledgling state with military and economic assistance. Relations between the countries improved further with Pakistan's participation in the 1955 Baghdad Pact, a U.S.-backed security agreement designed to block Soviet expansion into the Middle East. When Pakistan and India went to war in 1965, however, the United States suspended military aid to both countries. Washington restarted arms sales with Pakistan in 1975 on the grounds that it made a more attractive ally than India, which was viewed in Washington as being too closely connected to the Soviet Union. In 1979, the United States suspended most of its economic aid to Pakistan over concerns that it was trying to get a nuclear bomb. Relations between the two countries recovered in the early 1980s, though, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States then poured millions of dollars into Pakistan, which was backing a force of Islamist rebels known as mujahadeen, or holy warriors, against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 1990, renewed concerns over Pakistan's nuclear capability led the United States to once again suspend its military aid to the country and, in 1998, after Islamabad conducted its first nuclear weapons tests, Washington imposed sanctions on Pakistan.

Is the United States now giving aid to Pakistan?

Yes. The Bush administration lifted most of the sanctions on Pakistan after September 11 and has since provided Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup, with hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. By U.S. law, the United States must refuse most economic and military aid to any country that delivers or receives nuclear material or technology--or publicly issue a waiver in the name of national security. So far, though, the Bush administration has done neither.

How long has Pakistan been assisting North Korea'snuclear weapons program?

Experts say Pakistan has been bartering its nuclear know-how for North Korean missile hardware since the late 1990s. This relationship started because North Korean leader Kim Jong Il decided to start a clandestine nuclear weapons program based on hard-to-detect, highly enriched uranium. The father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, A.Q. Khan, made several mysterious visits to North Korea during this period. Meanwhile, Pakistan was finding it increasingly difficult to pay hard currency for shipments of missile parts from North Korea. U.S. intelligence agencies began investigating rumors that North Korea had begun a project to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb, and in summer 2002, the CIA concluded that North Korea had moved from research to weapons production. Click here for more on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.