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

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.

Nuclear arms in the hands of South Korea and Japan, alarming China, could trigger a “massive” Northeast Asian arms race and at the same time tempt countries in other regions to step over the nuclear threshold, making a hash of international nonproliferation arrangements.

“In other words, I think that the medicine would be worse than the disease,” said Straub, who was a stalwart of the pro-engagement camp in the Bush administration’s internecine wars over North Korea policy.

A different view is that what is really needed is for China, which has been propping up the North Korean economy, to become concerned enough about the fallout from Kim’s nuclear adventurism to join in truly effective sanctions. Some conservatives including pundit Charles Krauthammer have been arguing that nothing would concentrate Beijing’s mind more than the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan.

With the latest test, that notion is being examined more widely. Chris Nelson, whose influential Washington-based daily Nelson Report looks at policy issues affecting Asia, said in an e-mail that he agreed with all of Straub’s points but wondered whether Japanese nuclear armament was the “one strategic threat” that might outweigh what he said China now considers the primary threat: a “catastrophic collapse” of North Korea, spilling chaos across their shared border.

If South Korea “sounded serious, in turn prompting Japan to sound serious” about developing nuclear deterrents, “at that point, and that point only, might Beijing actually risk sanctions to bring down the Kim regime,” Nelson suggested, “at which point might the Kim regime, or its designated successor, finally be forced to enter into genuine leveraged buyout negotiations.”

Straub argued that a big problem with thus encouraging Japanese to debate going nuclear, as a ploy to affect Chinese priorities, would be controlling the process once it got started. Even raising the issue, he said, “unintentionally encourages the right-fringe in Japan.”

Nelson for his part acknowledged a boy-who-cried-“Wolf!” issue, saying there would be problems playing the Japan-South Korea nuclear card “because the Bushies went to that well way too many times with China on Japan.”

So what’s the alternative to answering Kim’s high-stakes gamble with a similarly risky roll of the dice? Straub asserted that “while North Korea’s having a small nuclear weapons program for some time to come — until the system finally gives way, which it will do eventually — is a serious problem, it can be managed.

“The United States can reaffirm its alliances and its nuclear umbrella,” Straub said. “The international community can limit North Korean access to international help. Missile defense will continue to be improved and expanded. Nonproliferation efforts can be redoubled.”

Read more on North Korea:

Opinion: Kim Jong Il's successor is (envelope please) ... Paek Se Bong!

All eyes on North Korea, for good reason

North Korea cranks up the rhetoric