Pakistan began to seriously pursue nuclear weapons in the 1970s, motivated by a desire to deter its more powerful rival India, as well as match India’s nuclear capability. The Pakistani politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who later became prime minister, claimed, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves—even go hungry—but we will get one of our own.” In 1998, on a clear and bright day in the Chagai district, Pakistan carried out a series of nuclear tests. Pakistan’s chief scientific officer said “All praise be to Allah” and pushed the button, causing the mountain to shake in a vast explosion.
In 2016, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that Pakistan had 130 to 140 warheads and predicted that it would nearly double its arsenal by 2025. Islamabad could deliver nuclear weapons by medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, F-16 fighters, and tactical systems for short-range use on the battlefield.
We can be confident that North Korea is paying close attention to Islamabad’s experience. After all, the two countries share important similarities. They both face an enduring rivalry with a far more powerful democratic state that used to be part of the same country (India and South Korea). Furthermore, both North Korea and Pakistan have, at times, flouted international norms. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan never signed the treaty. For decades, North Korea and Pakistan have been informal allies, trading conventional weapons and supporting Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.
Another reason that Pyongyang is certain to consider the Pakistan model is that the two states have cooperated on nuclear development. In 2006, the Congressional Research Service reported that Pyongyang gave missile technology to Islamabad, and Pakistan transferred nuclear technology to North Korea, through the network of the Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan. During the 1990s, when North Korea suffered a famine that killed perhaps 500,000 people, and North Koreans literally ate grass and leaves, Pyongyang continued to prioritize military development and received key data from Pakistan on uranium enrichment. Pakistan is even suspected of having carried out a nuclear test for North Korea.
From North Korea’s perspective, the Pakistan model must look compelling. First of all, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have successfully deterred India. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of humiliating military defeats for Pakistan, including the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, when Pakistan lost 56,000 square miles of territory, which became the new state of Bangladesh. Nuclear weapons have essentially removed the possibility of a large-scale Indian invasion. In 1987, President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq told his Indian counterpart, “If your forces cross our borders by an inch, we are going to annihilate your cities.” In 1999, Pakistani troops crossed into Indian-controlled Kashmir, triggering the Kargil Crisis and military hostilities. Crucially, India avoided escalation, kept the war limited, and declined to enter Pakistani territory. One study concluded “the principal source of Indian restraint was Pakistan’s overt possession of a nuclear arsenal.”