Connect to share and comment
The development of nuclear weapons in neighboring countries could delegitimize the regime — it could also backfire.
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: