The Obama administration is debating a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons. Some Asia specialists fear the resulting impact on North Korea. But dealing with Pyongyang is a reason for Washington to encourage its ally South Korea to go nuclear.
Washington has possessed nuclear weapons for more than 70 years. No one doubts that the United States would use nukes in its own defense.
However, since then, Washington has extended a so-called “nuclear umbrella” over many of its non-nuclear allies. For instance, the United States long has threatened to use nuclear weapons in its NATO allies’ defense, though the precise circumstances under which the United States would act were not clear.
Northeast Asia is the region where nuclear threats seem greatest. Japan and South Korea are thought to be snuggled beneath America’s nuclear umbrella, which has discouraged both from acquiring their own weapons.
The “umbrella” obviously is defensive, that is, to protect American allies against the first use of nukes. However, Washington also could—and, it appears, would, if necessary, whatever that might mean—use nuclear weapons first to stop a conventional attack. Russia and China aren’t likely to attack the Republic of Korea or Japan. More plausible is a North Korean invasion of the ROK.
Extended nuclear deterrence always has been risky for the United States. It means being willing to fight a nuclear war on behalf of others. Americans would risk Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles to, say, defend Berlin and Tokyo.
At least bilateral deterrence among great powers tends to be reasonably stable. Dealing with North Korea is potentially more dangerous.
Yet the DPRK eventually may gain the ability to strike the U.S. by developing long-range missiles as well as nuclear weapons. The North isn’t likely to attack first, but it still could lay waste to a major American city--which would be a bad deal indeed.
Yet advocates of extended deterrence are criticizing proposals for an American pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons.
The problem is fundamental: It is one thing for Washington to use nuclear weapons, including preemptively, to protect America. It is quite different to do so for allies.
As I point out in National Interest: “Alliances are a means, not an end, that is, a mechanism to help defend the U.S. A North Korean attack on the ROK would be awful, a humanitarian tragedy. But American security would not be directly threatened. Certainly there is no threat warranting the risk of nuclear retaliation on the U.S.”
Of course, those being defended have configured their security policy and force structure in response. But future policy should not be held captive to the past.
Washington’s chief responsibility should be America’s security. Backers of the status quo act like there is no alternative to leaving the ROK (and Japan, which faces a real, though less direct, threat from the DPRK) vulnerable to attack.
However, Seoul is well able to deter and defeat the North. The ROK possesses around 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea, as well as a vast technological lead and an extensive international support network. Japan, which long possessed the world’s second largest economy, also could do far more.
The South is capable of developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, polls show public support for such an option today. Opposition to nuclear weapons is stronger in Japan, but an ROK weapon would put enormous pressure on Tokyo to conform.
Obviously, there are plenty of good reasons to oppose proliferation, even among friends. However, the current system is entangling Washington in the middle of other nations’ potential conflicts. The result is to make America less secure.
Dealing with nuclear weapons is never easy. Washington’s best alternative may be to withdraw from Northeast Asia’s nuclear imbroglio. Then America’s allies could engage in containment and deterrence, just as America did for them for so many years.
There are hints of possible interest in acquiring nuclear weapons in both South Korea and Japan, especially since the rise of Donald Trump. Such a policy shift would be neither quick nor easy. Yet the presumption that the benefits of nuclear nonproliferation are worth the costs of maintaining a nuclear “umbrella” is outdated.
Since the development of the atomic bomb America has been committed to nuclear war. Many Americans probably believed that meant if their own nation’s survival was in doubt. But Washington always has been far more likely to use nukes on behalf of its allies.
The cost of America’s many commitments is high. The U.S. promises to sacrifice thousands if not millions of its own citizens for modest or even minimal interests.
Unfortunately, war is possible. Deterrence often fails, and Washington might have to decide if it will fight an unanticipated nuclear war or back down.
Friendly proliferation might be a better option. I write in Foreign Affairs: “Instead of being in the middle of a Northeast Asia in which only the bad guys—China, North Korea, Russia—had nukes, the U.S. could remain out of the fray. If something went wrong, the tragedy would not automatically include America.”
There obviously remain good reasons for the U.S. to be wary of encouraging proliferation. Yet opening a debate over the issue may be the most effective way to convince China to take more serious action against the DPRK.
Friendly proliferation might be the best of a bad set of options.
Yet again Donald Trump has proved that he was not the most militaristic Republican running for President. While most of Trump’s erstwhile Republican opponents were more likely to propose bombing North Korea, he proposed talking with Pyongyang.
Whether Trump meant a summit, phone conversation, or diplomatic discussion is unclear. But Washington should propose diplomatic talks, whether or not ultimately capped by a presidential conversation.
After all, other approaches are a nonstarter or have failed. Military strikes likely would trigger serious retaliation and possibly full-scale war. Sanctions have inflicted pain but not changed Pyongyang’s policy.
Why engage? First, even paranoids have enemies. Diminishing its sense of threat would at least create a possibility that Pyongyang would respond favorably to American initiatives.
Second, while the DPRK almost certainly would not voluntarily dismantle its existing nuclear arsenal, it might be willing to accept restrictions on future developments and proliferation.
Third, enlisting China’s aid, meaning a willingness to cut energy and food assistance, thereby potentially threatening the survival of the North Korean state, remains a long-shot and requires a significant American initiative to engage the DPRK.
Fourth, America could use a window, however small, into the Hermit Kingdom. Negotiations would offer a peak.
Fifth, the DPRK desires direct talks with America. One reason may be the desire to balance against China, which Washington should encourage.
Of course, any talks should be conducted with realistic expectations. Pyongyang is hardly a model negotiating partner. But that doesn’t preclude a more limited agreement at least moderating Pyongyang’s threats.
No surprise, Trump’s proposal to talk is controversial. However, as I write in the Diplomat, despite a policy agenda highlighted by foolish and unrealistic proposals (starting trade wars and building walls, for instance), on Korea Donald Trump is right. Offering to talk with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un could help break today’s stalemate.
Donald Trump again is causing international consternation. His remarks about South Korea and Japan developing nuclear weapons set off a minor firestorm.
“It would be catastrophic were the United States to shift its position and indicate that we support somehow the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries,” argued deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
Actually, what would be catastrophic is American involvement in a nuclear war as a result of its defense commitment to another nation, especially one able to defend itself.
Neither country pays enough for its own protection, instead preferring to rely on Washington. The issue of one of them going nuclear “at some point is something that we have to talk about,” he explained.
That’s hardly a radical sentiment. The issue recently was raised by a former presidential candidate in South Korea. After Trump’s remarks Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute observed: “If we have nuclear weapons, we’ll be in a much better position to deal with North Korea.”
Over the years there has been talk in Japan about pursuing the nuclear option. Former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said Trump’s sentiments allowed “Japan to change the peace-addled notion that America will protect us.”
Despite the campaign to treat nuclear nonproliferation as sacrosanct, it cannot be decided in isolation. Broadly speaking, it is better if fewer nations have nukes.
Yet in some cases proliferation might be stabilizing. Had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia might not have grabbed Crimea.
Worse, the way Washington won assent of some nuclear-capable powers to abstain is to provide a “nuclear umbrella,” that is, promise to use nukes to defend them if necessary. As a result, the price of nonproliferation in East Asia is America’s willingness to risk Los Angelas to protect Seoul and Tokyo, and maybe Taipei and Canberra too.
Today nonproliferation means only the bad guys get guns. In East Asia China, Russia, and North Korea are the nuclear powers. America is supposed to provide geopolitical balance.
The result of this situation truly could be catastrophic.
So far, America’s defense promises have not created stability. China is acting aggressively toward Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam in particular; Russia has challenged the U.S. in the eastern reaches of Europe and the Middle East. North Korea is worse, constantly breathing fire against its neighbors and the U.S.
Still, policymakers act as if U.S. defense guarantees will never get called. The threat of nuclear retaliation undoubtedly has deterrent value. However, the two great wars of the 20th century started because deterrence failed.
In particular, threats which seem inconsistent with underlying interests have little credibility. Thus, the Chinese have publicly doubted that America would risk nuclear war over Taiwan’s independence.
Moreover, once given, it is hard to back away from security commitments which have lost their original purpose. Which means if deterrence fails America could be at war automatically, without considering the stakes.
Finally, promising to defend other, smaller powers allows them to hold American security hostage. With Washington behind them they are more likely to engage in risky behavior. During the 2000s Taiwan’s independence-minded Chen Shui-bian upset Chinese sensibilities.
Washington’s view that they are covered by the “mutual” defense treaty likely has encouraged Tokyo to refuse to even discuss the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands with China. Philippines is attempting to enlist the U.S. in its squabble with Beijing over Scarborough Reef.
America’s nuclear umbrella deserves scrutiny and a serious debate. Yet Rhodes dismissed even discussing the idea, contending that “for the past 70 years” the U.S. has opposed nuclear proliferation. But when the world changes, policy also should change. As I pointed out in National Interest: “The greatest risk of catastrophe for this nation would be sleep-walking into an Asian nuclear war.”
A second-term American president begins a diplomatic opening with a long-time adversary. Neoconservatives, citing the adversary’s interpretation of the agreement, suggest that diplomacy harms US interests and tips the balance of power, perhaps irreversibly, in favor of the other party. They cultivate a sense of growing threat and a weakening America. The president responds by suggesting that those opposed to diplomacy seem to believe war is inevitable, and that they fail to appreciate that diplomacy provides an opportunity to avoid such a war, benefiting US interests. His opponents counter by accusing him of appeasement and a lack of will, calling him a “useful idiot for [enemy] propaganda.”
It’s 1988, and Ronald Reagan has just negotiated the INF treaty.
The parallel, of course, is to the current garment-rending over the interim deal negotiated between the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran. There is absolutely no plausible interpretation of this deal that puts Iran with or closer to a nuclear weapon at the end of the six month period covered by the deal. At worst, it either puts 4-6 weeks onto the breakout time frame, or else Iran cheats and that cheating is detected, given the increased inspection schedules in the deal. As the New York Times’ account notes:
The interim agreement is, in effect, an elaborate pause button that provides a basis for pursuing a larger accord. It adds at least several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb if it decided to pursue a military option, but it can be reversed if either side changes its mind.
Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that is sufficient for energy production but not for a bomb. The country’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons-grade fuel, will be diluted or converted to oxide so that it cannot be readily prepared for military purposes.
Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities. The agreement does not, however, require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5 percent, or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.
Increasing Iran’s more highly enriched stockpile of uranium is a necessary condition for their acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This deal either will reduce that stockpile, or the deal is off. Those are the possible outcomes.*
Objections to this interim agreement are really hard to understand on the merits. Supporters of the current Menendez-Kirk bill, which would preemptively hang more sanctions over the Iranians’ heads, insist they support diplomacy, but given that the Iranians have said repeatedly they’ll walk if the bill passes—and given that if they do walk, there are going to be a lot more calls for military strikes—that’s tough to believe. Only two Senate Republicans have yet to sign onto the bill--Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky--both of whom had supported previous sanctions legislation but are exhibiting the conservative values of caution and prudence while diplomacy (and diminution of Iran's stockpile of 20% enriched uranium) ensues.
Then again, it is also hard to understand on the merits the neoconservative objections to the INF treaty (and to diplomacy with the Soviet Union altogether), and that turned out okay. Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail. Again.
* Some observers have worried about a nuclear facility whose location we don't know at present. This is indeed a concern, although it is the same concern with or without the nuclear deal.
Joshua Keating over at Foreign Policy offered a thoughtful commentary on Rob Montz’s North Korea documentary, “Juche Strong,” after last Thursday’s screening at Cato. Keating contended that the film, which suggests that pervasive regime propaganda has created at least some degree of legitimacy in the minds of many North Koreans, makes a case “that the United States needs to maintain its current military commitment to the region.”
No doubt, it would be better for the Republic of Korea and Japan if the North was made up of “cowed and terrified people who will abandon their leaders at the first signs of weakness,” as Keating put it. But even popular determination and commitment—so far untested in an external crisis—go only so far. The question is not whether the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a threat, but 1) whether it is a threat which cannot be contained by its neighbors and 2) is a sufficient threat to America warranting U.S. led containment. The answers are no.
First, the DPRK has amassed a large army with lots of tanks, but training is limited and equipment is antiquated. The North’s forces could devastate Seoul with artillery and missile strikes and a 4,000 tank surge might reach the South’s capital, but North Korea would be unlikely to ultimately triumph. The latter is weak in the air and with a decrepit economy can ill afford anything other than an unlikely blitzkrieg victory. Nor could Pyongyang look to Russia or China for support: the Cold War truly is over.
More important, the ROK, which currently possesses around 40 times the North’s GDP and twice the North’s population, could do much more in its own defense. South Korea has created a competent, modern, and sizeable military. Is it enough? Only Seoul can answer.
If the South remains vulnerable to a North Korean strike, it is only because the ROK decided to emphasize economic development and rely on America. That made sense during the early days of the Cold War, but no longer. There is no justification for turning what should be a short-term American shield against another round of Soviet- and Chinese-backed aggression into a long-term U.S. defense dole. It doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans are “Juche Strong or Juche Harmless,” as Keating put it. South Korea can defend itself. (Doing so would be even easier if Seoul and Tokyo worked harder to overcome their historical animus. Alas, they feel little pressure to do so as long as they both can rely on Washington for protection.)
Second, the DPRK poses no threat to America requiring an ongoing military commitment. Even in 1950 the Pentagon did not believe the Korean peninsula to be vital strategically, but the Cold War created a unique context for the conflict. Today a second Korean War would only be a Korean War. Tragic, yes. Threat to America, no. Pyongyang is an ongoing danger to its neighbors, not the United States.
The North matters to the United States primarily because Washington remains entangled, with troops, bases, and defense commitments. That is, North Korea threatens America because Washington chooses to allow North Korea to threaten America.
Of course, proliferation would remain a concern even without a U.S. presence in Korea, but America’s garrison does nothing to promote denuclearization. To the contrary, Washington is helpfully providing tens of thousands of American nuclear hostages if the DPRK creates an arsenal of deliverable nuclear warheads. It would be far better for U.S. forces to be far away, out of range of whatever weapons the North possesses.
North Korea is only one side of the Northeast Asian balance. It doesn’t much matter if Pyongyang is weak or strong so long as South Korea and Japan are stronger.
Americans lived for decades with the fear of instant death from a Soviet nuclear strike. The People’s Republic of China has acquired a similar, though more limited, capability. Nothing happened in either case, because even evil people who acted like barbarians at home refused to commit suicide abroad.
So it is with North Korea. A Defense Intelligence Agency report that Pyongyang may have miniaturized a nuclear weapon for use on a missile has created a predictable stir. Yet the analysis was carefully hedged, and Washington’s top security leadership, ranging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the seriousness of the threat.
If the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was lucky, it could successfully launch its longest range missile, topped by a warhead with explosives rather than a nuclear weapon, without the rocket blowing up or falling back on the DPRK. With additional luck, the missile might hit somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii, though Pyongyang would have little control over the actual strike zone.
But if the missile “worked” in this way, the North’s luck would quickly end. The United States would launch several nuclear-topped missiles and Pyongyang, certainly, and every urban area in the North, probably, would be vaporized. The “lake of fire” about which the DPRK has constantly spoken would occur, all over North Korea. Pretty-boy Kim Jong-un wouldn’t have much to smile about then.
Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. There is no indication that it won’t work against the North Korean leadership. There always is a risk of mistake or miscalculation, but that properly is a problem for Pyongyang’s neighbors.
The latest DPRK crisis should trigger a policy shift in Washington. Once the immediate furor has passed, the Obama administration should begin bringing home the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and then end America’s formal security guarantee. Once Washington no longer confronted the North, the latter would turn its ire elsewhere.
The ROK should take over its own defense, while building a better relationship with democratic neighbors, most obviously Japan, which also has been threatened by the North. At the same time, the Obama administration should hint at a rethink of Washington’s traditional opposition to the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. China should understand that failing to take strong measures to curb its ally’s atomic ambitions could unleash the far more sophisticated nuclear potential of America’s allies.
North Korea is a practical threat to the United States only to the degree which Washington allows. Better policy-making would reduce America’s role in Pyongyang’s ongoing tragic farce.