“They said it very clearly,” Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. intelligence official who engaged in talks with North Korean officials as recently as 2017, told NK News. “Accept us as a nuclear-weapons state and we will be a good friend of the United States. You’ve done it with Pakistan.” The North Koreans wanted roughly the deal India got from the United States, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told The Atlantic in describing a 2007 meeting. “What North Korean officials said to me is ‘We’re going to keep our nuclear weapons, and you’re going to end the sanctions and normalize relations and make a peace treaty with us,’” he said in a 2017 interview.
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Trump-administration officials insist that their ultimate objective continues to be the “full verified denuclearization” of North Korea, but ahead of the Vietnam summit, they’ve signaled that their near-term goals are far more modest. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vowed to “reduce the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea,” while Trump has noted that “as long as there’s no [nuclear and missile] testing, we’re happy.” If the outcome of the Vietnam summit is fundamentally about finding ways to minimize the danger to the United States and the world of living with a nuclear North Korea, the dispute between India and Pakistan is instructive of how geopolitics could change as a result.
Two weeks after a terrorist carried out a suicide attack on a convoy of Indian security forces, killing 40 soldiers, the two countries have taken progressively more aggressive action against each other. New Delhi, blaming Pakistan for the bombing, dispatched the Indian air force to strike what it said was a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. Soon after, Islamabad said it had shot down two Indian jets and captured a pilot.
India and Pakistan have fought multiple conflicts since the end of British colonial rule in 1947 resulted in the partition of the subcontinent. Pakistan’s prime minister and senior Indian officials have said they don’t want to see the situation deteriorate any further, but the risk of miscalculation remains high, amid fears that any misstep could trigger all-out war, the first between the two countries since they both developed nuclear weapons—in fact, the first between two nuclear-armed states, ever.
The situation illustrates the paradox a nuclear arsenal poses: Nonproliferation advocates would argue that the danger of escalation into apocalyptic war is why states should not possess such weapons. But it is precisely because of situations like these that countries such as India and Pakistan will never renounce them.
The ongoing hostility elicits questions, not to mention fears, about the point at which the two states are prepared to resort to using nuclear weapons. It brings to the fore the logic of possessing such weapons, whether states are taken seriously as great powers without them, and indeed whether possession of them limits a nation’s military options, especially when its public is baying for war.