Commentary

Nuclear Neighbors Might Thwart N. Korea

During her visit to East Asia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Japan and South Korea that the United States would defend those countries from North Korean aggression with ”the full range” of U.S. weapons. In exchange for that promise, she won assurances from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Aso that Japan would not seek to build a nuclear arsenal of its own.

Rice’s approach plays into North Korea’s hands. Kim Jong Il’s regime is counting on the United States to prevent Japan and South Korea from even considering the option of going nuclear. That would mean that Pyongyang would have the luxury of a nuclear monopoly in northeast Asia (except for its ally, China).

Instead of putting a leash on Japan and South Korea, U.S. officials should inform Pyongyang — and Beijing — that if the North insists on wielding nuclear weapons, Washington will urge Tokyo and Seoul to make their own decisions about whether to acquire strategic deterrents. The mere possibility that South Korea and Japan might do so would come as an unpleasant surprise to both North Korea and China.

The United States does not need to press Tokyo and Seoul to go nuclear. That would be inappropriate. It is sufficient if Washington informs those governments that the United States would not object to their developing nuclear weapons. In addition, the United States needs to let Seoul and Tokyo know that we intend to withdraw our military forces from South Korea and Japan. In an environment with a nuclear-armed North Korea, those forward-deployed forces are not military assets; they are nuclear hostages.

Faced with a dangerous, nuclear-capable neighbor and a more limited U.S. military commitment to the region, Japan or South Korea (or both) might well decide to build a nuclear deterrent. Although the Japanese public seems reluctant to go down that path, the attitude in South Korea is different. A public opinion poll taken shortly after Pyongyang’s nuclear test showed that a majority of respondents believed South Korea should develop a deterrent of its own.

The prospect of additional nuclear weapons proliferation in northeast Asia obviously is not an ideal outcome. But offsetting the North’s looming illicit advantage may be the best of a bad set of options. Moreover, the real danger arising from proliferation is when repulsive rogue states such as North Korea get such weapons, not when stable, democratic countries such as Japan and South Korea do so in self-defense.

If the North had to deal with nuclear neighbors, whom it could not so easily intimidate, it might have to abandon its current provocative course. Indeed, Pyongyang might face the prospect of confronting more prosperous adversaries that could easily build larger and more sophisticated nuclear arsenals than it could hope to do. Kim’s regime might then conclude that keeping the region non-nuclear would be more productive. Even if it does not do so, a nuclear balance of power in the region would likely emerge instead of a North Korean nuclear monopoly.

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan is also the one factor that might galvanize the Chinese to put serious diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer expresses that thesis starkly: “We should go to the Chinese and tell them plainly that if they do not join us in squeezing North Korea and thus stopping its march to go nuclear, we will endorse any Japanese attempt to create a nuclear deterrent of its own… . If our nightmare is a nuclear North Korea, China’s is a nuclear Japan. It’s time to share the nightmares.”

Even if one does not embrace Krauthammer’s approach, the reality is that if the United States blocks the possible emergence of a northeast Asian nuclear balance, it will be stuck with the responsibility of shielding non-nuclear allies from a volatile, nuclear-armed North Korea. More proliferation may be a troubling outcome, but it beats that scenario.

Ted Galen Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies and the co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea” (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004).