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Forget North Korea: India and Pakistan are the Real Worry

North Korea’s nuclear threat to its southern neighbor pales by comparison to India-Pakistan tensions.

The recent provocations from North Korea — missiles fired over Japan on August 29 and September 15, and a sixth nuclear weapon detonated on September 3 — have put the world on edge. With this already dangerous situation compounded by harsh rhetoric from both President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, many fear that the world is only a few steps away from nuclear war. These commentators are correct in that the world stands on the brink, but they are focused on the wrong place.

Further to the south, two nuclear-armed powers regularly face off against one another along a highly contested border. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since their 1947 partition, having both laid claim to the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The rivalry between the two has a tendency to flare up without notice, causing numerous border skirmishes, and runs the risk of escalating into another war.

It is both sides’ nuclear arsenals, however, that make this unpredictable rivalry dangerous and, therefore, the most likely spot for a nuclear war to break out. Self-preservation makes North Korea a predictable nuclear actor; Kim Jong-un will only escalate as far as is necessary for his survival. The continuous hair-trigger game of tit-for-tat between India and Pakistan, on the other hand, has the potential to escalate out of control, and it only takes one soldier to make a miscalculation.

The 1947 partition divided the old British Raj into India and Pakistan, the latter originally comprising the Muslim-majority areas in what is today Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan) and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Violence accompanied the mass migration set in motion by the partition, with the northern region of Kashmir becoming a particularly potent flash point. The violence escalated into all-out war that lasted from October 1947 until a ceasefire was agreed on January 1, 1949. Open warfare would flare up in Kashmir again in August 1965, when Pakistan launched a general invasion. Mediation in January 1966 by the Soviet Union saw both sides’ militaries withdraw from the disputed region, but Kashmir’s status has never been definitively resolved. In December 1971 conflict again erupted, this time over East Pakistan. The aspiring state wanted independence from the government in West Pakistan, and India was more than willing to help East Pakistan secure it. Pakistan was rapidly defeated, demonstrating India’s military superiority and creating the state of Bangladesh.

The rivalry was taken to the next level in 1974, when India successfully tested its first nuclear device in the northern state of Rajasthan. Known today by one of its various code names, the “Smiling Buddha,” and officially referred to as a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” the test alarmed the Pakistani military. Pakistan had recently lost its eastern half in the 1971 war and was understandably worried about its larger and more powerful neighbor becoming a nuclear power. Later, India conducted a series of five nuclear tests in 1998. This time, Pakistan had a response: A month after the Indian tests, Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests of its own. India and Pakistan have subsequently amassed comparable nuclear arsenals of roughly 110 warheads apiece.

The threat of nuclear annihilation has not brought peace between the two rivals. The 1999 Kargil War, though smaller than the previous three India-Pakistan wars, could have become a great deal worse if it went nuclear. While there have not been any wars since, border skirmishes and terrorist attacks keep the rivalry simmering, always threatening to boil over. In 2008, militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group with ties to Pakistani intelligence, attacked multiple targets in Mumbai, India. The unresolved dispute over Jammu and Kashmir has also proved to be a reliable flash point. Just this spring there were clashes between Indian soldiers and the Muslim, pro-Pakistan population of the Kashmir valley, resulting in the deaths of eight civilians.

By contrast, the North Korean situation, while certainly dangerous, is less likely to cause a nuclear war. Despite the rhetoric and bluster, North Korea and South Korea have a much quieter border than India and Pakistan. Furthermore, North Korea’s arsenal is aimed primarily at deterring aggression from the United States, not just its rival to the south. Seeing the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of the Western powers, Kim Jong-il encouraged North Korea’s nuclear program as a means of ensuring his dynasty’s security. This momentum was seized upon by his son, Kim Jong-un, and could soon make any effort to depose him impossible.

The sound and fury coming from North Korea is certainly attention grabbing, but the unpredictable nature of India and Pakistan’s rivalry is a graver threat to humanity. The unstable border in Kashmir, continuing political tensions and a ready nuclear arsenal make this stand-off the most dangerous on the planet. World leaders must turn their attention toward this nuclear stand-off and work to bring a lasting peace to the region. Otherwise, the world could see its first, and probably last, nuclear war.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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