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Opinion: Time to encourage Japan and South Korea to go nuclear?

The development of nuclear weapons in neighboring countries could delegitimize the regime — it could also backfire.

A visitor looks at a display on North Korea's missiles at an observation post near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, about 45 km (28 miles) north of Seoul May 26, 2009. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Setting off its second nuclear test this week, North Korea proclaimed as loudly as it knows how that it is determined to be recognized as a nuclear power and has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing its hard-won nuclear deterrent.

Given that, has the time come for the United States to put aside its faith in “six-party talks” among North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States in favor of something stronger — as in encouraging the North’s principal regional enemies to trump the North by developing their own nuclear deterrents? Or, if not overtly encouraging them, at least looking the other way much as Washington has done regarding Israel?

Considered technologically capable of developing nuclear weapons quickly, Japan and South Korea have eschewed that path up to now and relied on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

However, in the wake of Monday’s test, Yoshihisa Komori, a commentator sometimes called the “Rush Limbaugh of Japan,” echoed recent calls from elsewhere on the Japanese right that his countrymen at least debate exercising the nuclear option.

Meanwhile the conservative Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo suggested that South Korea, despite previous commitments to the contrary, “now requires a deterrent.”

“If North Korea continues its tests without any limitations we will soon face a country that has a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Chosun Ilbo worried in an editorial. “It would then be in a completely different class from South Korea. It would want to be treated as a nuclear power by the international community ... and would attempt to alter the fate of the South by touting its superiority on the Korean Peninsula.”

The argument has force. Becoming a nuclear power for Kim Jong Il is, among other things, a way of strengthening the domestic prestige — and securing the survival — of a regime that has no realistic prospect of creating prosperity for its subjects, or even providing them enough to eat.

If Japan and South Korea used their vastly superior resources to out-nuke North Korea, where would that leave the legitimacy Kim and his cohorts think they are gaining from their own program, and how much longer could the regime last?

But as emotionally satisfying as it might be for the United States to thumb its nose at the persistently and exasperatingly provocative Kim by encouraging its neighbors to stand up to him on his own terms, former State Department Korea desk chief David Straub cautions that it would likely backfire.

The resulting increased tensions would probably bolster the regime internally even while driving it closer into the embrace of China, said Straub, now associate director of Korea studies at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, in an e-mail exchange.