The logic of a nuclear Asia
The 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.
The specter of a North Korea with an operational nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (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 Northeast Asia.
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 and abruptly ended President Park Geun-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 deterrence. Yet it is quickly dissipated. But this time, it has gone further. Many prominent members of the South Korean elite - including leading ruling party legislators - are raising the issue. A recent Asan Institute poll suggests 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 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 U.S. extended deterrence. With each newly created island and radar deployment inside its “nine-dash line,” doubts grow about U.S. effectiveness.
The proliferation 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 World War II. 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 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. Then ROK President Park Chung Hee (Ms. Park’s father) began a secret effort to build nuclear capabilities in the late 1970s. But Washington discovered the fledgling nuclear program and persuaded General 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, have underpinned stability. But in recent years, as North Korea moves toward attaining the capability of a nuclear-tipped ICBM and as China’s rapid military modernization poses new challenges to U.S. force projection capabilities, there have been fresh doubts about U.S. extended deterrence. The United States 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 with the United States. Now Seoul is also in talks with Washington about acquiring the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system which would integrate into the U.S.-Japan defense network.
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 China. But the physics of U.S. missile defense systems clearly show that they would not threaten China’s nuclear second-strike capability. In fact, according to senior U.S. officials, in private discussions, Chinese officials have admitted to U.S. diplomats that they know Thaad would not compromise Beijing’s nuclear deterrent 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 Chinese Ambassador to the ROK Qiu Guohong that Sino-ROK relations “could be destroyed in an instant” if the ROK deployed Thaad was an unusually blunt statement that drew a strong, indignant response from the Blue House.
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 angrier 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 lies in ruins. Chinese cooperation on a new UN Security Council resolution putting more sanctions on North Korea is a step toward reinforcing China’s cooperation on North Korea. The prospect of Thaad deployment in Korea was important leverage that led to China agreeing to tough sanctions which they had been reluctant to accept. But Washington, Tokyo and Seoul will be looking to see how Beijing implements the UN sanctions and how it responds to secondary sanctions that all three are either implementing or are considering.
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 nuclearization in Northeast Asia.
*The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.
by Robert A. Manning