The folly of nuclear armament

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The folly of nuclear armament


Moon Chung-in

“Will America’s Asian allies go nuclear?” This provocative question is the title of an article by David Santoro, a senior fellow who specializes in nonproliferation and nuclear security issues at the Pacific Forum CSIS. It was published in The National Interest’s February edition. His article triggered an unexpected controversy among nonproliferation experts and researchers on the alliance with the United States.

In his article, Santoro said voices in South Korean and Japan are calling for the creation of their own atomic weapons and moving beyond the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. North Korea’s provocative behaviors, China’s aggressive rise and the weakening of the security pledge by America for the Asia-Pacific region, including defense budget cuts, prompted the arguments, he said.

Santoro then noted that South Korea and Japan both have the technology and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, adding that Korea, based on its past, is particularly worrisome.

His argument is that the United States must not allow such a move, and that it should be resolutely prepared to end the alliances with them if they go nuclear. He claims that the geopolitical interests from the alliance can never come before the U.S. goal of the nonproliferation of nuclear arms and that allowing their development will only destroy the global nuclear order based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

He said a nuclear-armed Korea and Japan will eventually deal a fatal blow to U.S. leadership because they will unlikely go along with U.S. demands after that. His argument reflects the view of non-proliferation advocates, the major group in the inner circle of U.S. foreign and security policy.

Elbridge Colby, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, rebutted that argument in The National Interest with an article titled “Choose Geopolitics Over Nonproliferation.” In the article, Colby contended that the ultimate goal of U.S. foreign policy is not nonproliferation but “protecting Americans’ security, liberty and prosperity through moral means.”

He argued nuclear nonproliferation should not be regarded as summun bonum, and that the scenarios regarding nuclear-armed Korea and Japan must be evaluated coldly, based on interest and loss, opportunity and risk for U.S. national interest to decide whether it would support either country going nuclear. In other words, he believed it is unreasonable to scrap an alliance solely based on the standards of nonproliferation.

Colby said North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s military superpower are an undeniable reality and geopolitical deterrence and check on the two countries are actually the key national interest of America.

Taking into account the weakening U.S. security commitment in the region, maintaining the alliances and utilizing nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan as potential assets of America would be more advisable, he maintained. Because the United States has limits in stopping their nuclear ambitions, following Santoro’s argument would result in losing both nonproliferation and the alliance, he contended.

Although the debate is nothing new, it felt untimely and unrealistic to read the discussion. Santoro clearly bypassed the reality that it is nearly impossible for Seoul and Tokyo to pursue independent nuclear arms programs under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Their strict atomic cooperation agreements with the United States are a rigid barrier.

On the other hand, Colby clearly oversimplified South Korea’s strategic intentions. Even if South Korea managed to obtain a nuclear arms programs and alliance with the United States, its security dilemma would not be resolved. In fact, its security conditions could be threatened more seriously than ever if the development fueled conventional and nuclear arms races on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

South Korea values security, liberty and prosperity as much as America. But nuclear weapons and the alliance won’t guarantee its national interest. It could be the second-best option, but it would not be the best choice. Hostile North Korea and aggressive China are also not permanent invariables, and diplomatic efforts must be made to change them. That is the precise reason for a country’s diplomatic efforts.

The Park Geun-hye government has made that clear a number of times. She stressed the importance of improving inter-Korean relations through the Korean Peninsula process, while building trust in the region to create an order of peace and cooperation through the balanced diplomacy between the United States and China and the Northeast Asia peace initiative. If it manages not to deviate from this path, the nuclear crisis of North Korea can progress positively.

That’s why the argument for keeping both nuclear arms and the alliance at the same time seems absurd. We must avoid the sheer folly of taking that dangerous detour rather than walking on the direct, straightforward path.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 10, Page 35

*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in

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