One of the gravest concerns about Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is that it will set off a nuclear arms race in the region, whereas Iran’s acquisition of the bomb prompts its neighbors to follow suit. As President Obama warned in 2012, if Iran gets nuclear weapons, “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons.”
No country is seen as more likely to go nuclear in response to Iran doing so as Saudi Arabia, Iran’s long-standing rival in the region. Saudi officials have done little to tamp down such fears, instead indulging them repeatedly. Just last month, Prince Turki bin Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, told a South Korean conference: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”
With a few exceptions, nearly everyone who fears that Saudi Arabia will acquire a nuclear weapon nonetheless concedes Riyadh wouldn’t build a bomb itself. Instead, the general consensus has long held that Saudi Arabia would purchase off-the-shelf nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Indeed, concerns about a secret Saudi-Pakistani nuclear pact date back to the 1970s and 1980s, and have become especially prevalent over the past decade and a half.
To begin with, Pakistan already worries that its arsenal is too small to survive an Indian or American counterforce strike. Moreover, selling Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons would result in unprecedented backlash from most of the international community, including both the United States and China, Pakistan’s major patrons. It would also enrage Iran, who is well positioned to retaliate against Pakistan in numerous ways, from supporting separatists in Balochistan to further cozying up to India.
Any remaining concerns about whether Pakistan would sell Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons were seeming put to rest back in April, when Islamabad refused to participate in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. If Pakistan refused to send in even a symbolic contingent of troops to participate in the Saudi-led mission, it certainly wouldn’t give Riyadh its most valuable military assets.
But while Saudi Arabia couldn’t purchase a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, it might have more luck with North Korea. In fact, there are a number of compelling reasons to believe North Korea might be amenable to such a request.
Most obviously, North Korea has a troubling history of proliferating nuclear technology, including to the Middle East. There have long been persistent (albeit largely unconfirmed) rumors that North Korea has provided Iran with nuclear technology, and Pyongyang also helped Syria build a nuclear reactor (which Israel destroyed in airstrikes in 2011). More generally, North Korea has a long track record of selling advanced military technology like ballistic missiles to numerous pariah nations.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia would be an extremely valuable patron for North Korea. Currently, Kim Jong-un is trying to improve the economy especially for North Korean elites in order to shore up support for his rule. This effort has been made extremely difficult by the more hardline stance China has taken against North Korea ever since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
Pyongyang has been scrambling to find suitable replacements for China, but so far it has had little luck. Russia appears to want to improve ties with North Korea, but its growing financial woes will limit its ability to provide North Korea with enough economic assistance to offset the loss of Chinese aid. Meanwhile, South Korea appears intent on limiting its economic relationship with North Korea absent significant concessions from Pyongyang on the latter’s nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia would face none of these constraints. Unlike South Korea, Saudi Arabia is not overtly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear program. And unlike Russia, it does not face enormous financial difficulties.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is awash in petrodollars, boasting the third largest foreign currency reserves in the world after only China and Japan. Although it has been using these to soften the impact of lower oil prices, it still has $708 billion in FX reserves, more than enough to provide significant support for North Korea.
Saudi Arabia could also provide North Korea with other kinds of valuable assistance. For instance, foreign workers make up over half of Saudi Arabia’s labor force, and North Koreans working in Saudi Arabia could provide the Hermit Kingdom with another significant source of hard currency. Indeed, this is one of the Kim regime’s favorite tactics for skirting international sanctions. As the Asan Institute of Policy Studies has explained: “Earnings are not sent back as remittances, but appropriated by the state and transferred back to the country in the form of bulk cash, in clear violation on UN sanctions.”
Some estimate that as many as 65,000 North Koreans are working abroad in 40 different countries, and that this number has doubled or even tripled since Kim Jong-un took power. Yet, according to Asan, Saudi Arabia doesn’t even rank in the top ten nations in terms of North Korean laborers. Changing that would be a huge boon to the Kim regime.
Finally, besides hard cash, North Korea faces a chronic energy shortage, with China accounting for nearly 90 percent of North Korea’s energy imports in recent years. Saudi oil and natural gas could significantly reduce North Korea’s reliance on China for its energy needs, while also helping to stimulate the North Korean economy.
All of this suggests that if Saudi Arabia purchases off-the-shelf nuclear weapons, they are more likely to come from North Korea than Pakistan.
Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.