Reverberations of North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests are still rattling nerves in an uneasy northeast Asia, one filled with new threats of nuclear annihilation from Pyongyang. This week, North Korean media reported that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has instructed for nuclear weapons to be ready for use at any time. This comes as the specter of a North Korea with an operational nuclear-tipped ICBM raises anew questions about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over East Asia. Pyongyang’s provocations have also torpedoed South Korea’s hopes of building a strategic partnership with China, shifting geopolitical dynamics in the region.
Look no further than the overheated debate in South Korea over whether Seoul needs its own nuclear weapons to understand the precarious state of geopolitical equilibrium in East Asia. North Korea’s recent tests have put South Koreans on edge, abruptly ended President Park Guen-hye’s “Trustpolitik” efforts to reach out to Pyongyang.
After each of Pyongyang’s previous nuclear tests there has been an outpouring of emotional sentiment calling for South Korea to acquire its own nuclear deterrent. Before, such talk has quickly dissipated. This time, however, it is growing louder. Many prominent members of the South Korean elite—including leading ruling party legislators—are raising the issue. A recent ASAN Institute poll suggests that nearly 54 percent of South Koreans favor Seoul going nuclear. This trend is but one sign of unease in East Asia, one that goes well beyond concerns over Pyongyang.
China’s growing assertiveness in the East and South China seas, its growing military capabilities and its rhetoric pointedly questioning the U.S. military presence and alliances in the region has fueled new anxiety about the durability of the U.S. “rebalance” and America’s extended deterrence. With each newly created island and radar deployment inside its “9-dash line,” doubts grow about U.S. effectiveness.
Why Nukes Matter
So far, the spread of nuclear weapons has been a classic tale of a global chain of nuclear proliferation, reflecting a perceived security dilemma since the Soviet Union broke the U.S. monopoly after the second world war. For North Korea, with an ill-equipped conventional military force with 1970s-era equipment, nuclear weapons may be viewed as a cheaper deterrent. For Pyongyang, the lesson of U.S. intervention in Iraq and Libya (after Muammar el-Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program) is that nuclear weapons are its insurance policy against U.S. attack and/or regime change efforts.
But even before North Korea attained its nuclear prowess, South Korea considered going nuclear. After the bitter U.S. defeat in Vietnam in 1975, many in Asia feared an American retreat from its predominant role in Asia. The South Korean president at the time, Gen. Park Chung Hee (Ms. Park’s father), began a secret effort to build nuclear capabilities in the late 1970s. Washington, however, discovered the fledgling nuclear program and persuaded Gen. Park that nuclear weapons would not enhance ROK security and that maintaining the U.S.-ROK alliance was a better choice.
The U.S. nuclear umbrella, extended through its longstanding alliances in the region, has underpinned stability. But in recent years, North Korea has moved toward attaining the capability of a nuclear-tipped ICBM. The result—at the same time as China’s rapid military modernization has posed new challenges to U.S. force projection capabilities—has been fresh doubts about America’s extended deterrence. Would the United States really trade Los Angeles for Shanghai or Pyongyang?
Washington has responded by enhancing and upgrading its military presence in East Asia and working with allies to fashion a multilayered missile defense system. Thus Japan has made large investments in ballistic missile defenses—including co-developing the SM-3 2A, a mobile system for Aegis cruisers, with the United States. Now Seoul is also in talks with Washington about acquiring THAAD missile defense system which would integrate it into the U.S.-Japan defense network. Like Japan, Seoul has several Aegis cruisers, and could also deploy the SM-32a when it becomes operational.
Beijing argues that citing North Korea is just an excuse for the United States to put in place a missile defense system aimed just as much at containing Beijing as defending against Pyongyang. But the physics of U.S. missile defense systems clearly show that they would not threaten China’s nuclear second strike capability. In truth, Beijing is far more concerned about the upgrade in U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral defense cooperation and trilateral integration of missile defense systems
China has damaged its credibility with Seoul by downplaying the North Korean threat and publicly displaying heavy-handed pressure to warn Seoul against acquiring THAAD. The recent comment by China’s ambassador to the ROK, Qiu Guohong that THAAD Sino-ROK relations “could be destroyed in an instant,” if the ROK deployed THAAD was an unusually blunt statement that drew an indignant response from Seoul.
The irony of telling South Koreans alarmed at Pyongyang’s belligerence that a North Korea armed with WMDs is not a legitimate threat, all while Beijing continues to enable North Korea, seems lost on China.
President Park has made building a strategic partnership with China (its largest trading partner) a priority, knowing that China’s cooperation will be critical to the ultimate reunification of Korea. But the disappointment of many South Koreans at Beijing’s pressure on Seoul not to pursue missile defenses is palpable: to South Koreans China appears more angry at Seoul’s interest in THAAD than at the bellicose behavior of its defiant ally, North Korea.
China’s innovative diplomacy as host of the Six-Party talks on denuclearization lays in ruins. The just approved UN Security Council sanctions will be a true test of China's intentions. As 90 percent of North Korean trade is with China, the effectiveness of sanctions will depend on Beijing's willingness to enforce them.
If ways and means of containing and rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions are not found, it would not be surprising if momentum in Seoul to acquire nuclear weapons built. And if that occurred, how would Japan and Taiwan who also entertain doubts about the U.S. nuclear umbrella respond? Clearly, the stakes are high if we are to avoid further nuclearized Northeast Asia.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012 tweet: @RManning4
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Energy.