Potential for nuclear proliferation
Jordan Ryan | Thursday, November 2, 2017
We are reminded virtually every day of the ongoing tensions between North Korea and Washington. Just last month, the North Korean regime conducted its sixth underground nuclear test, which the government of Kim Jong Un claimed involved the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb. The rogue nation also continues its development of a ballistic missile and, in late August of this year, sent a test missile over a northern Japanese territory.
While the personal insults hurled by the leaders of North Korea and the United States seem to capture the Twitter-focused headlines, a serious and potentially far reaching consequence has gone largely unnoticed. That is, if the nuclear capabilities of North Korea continue unchecked, including the successful deployment of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), will our present allies in the Korean peninsula and beyond continue to forgo the development of their own nuclear capabilities? The answer to this question has enormous ramifications for the global proliferation of nuclear weapons and the potential disruption of diplomatic relations with other affected nations, particularly China.
The fundamental concern of our allies is simple. Nations in the region such as Australia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have been content for years existing under the protection of the United States’ nuclear umbrella. But recent events in North Korea have caused the leaders of these countries to begin to reconsider the reliability of this strategy. They are now concerned that the United States may be reluctant to defend them if doing so would provoke a nuclear attack on American soil. In other words, would the US defend Seoul at the expense of San Francisco?
The nations most immediately impacted by a nuclear North Korea are, of course, South Korea and Japan. As the nuclear threat of Pyongyang continues, there is a growing public sentiment in South Korea for the development of nuclear weapons. As a recent public opinion poll in South Korea revealed, 60 percent of the population favored the development of an independent nuclear capability. In addition, this Gallup poll further indicated that 70 percent of South Koreans supported the redeployment of United States nuclear weapons to South Korean soil. President George H.W. Bush removed United States nuclear arms from South Korea in 1991. There is little doubt as to whether South Korea could develop and deploy a nuclear capability in relatively short order.
Japan presents somewhat of a different story attributable in large part to obvious historical factors. Prime Minister Shinxo Abe campaigned in part on a platform including a military build up against the North Korean threat. Just last week, the Prime Minister won a two-thirds majority in parliament on the hopes of revising Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution.
Japan is uniquely capable of developing a nuclear arsenal. The nation is a global leader in sophisticated civilian nuclear technology and now possesses an estimated nine tons of plutonium, which could be used to create over 6,000 nuclear warheads. Japan also has one of the most advanced space industries in the world, which could be easily turned towards the development of ballistic missiles and other advanced weapon delivery technologies.
There is little doubt that the nations most immediately and adversely affected by the North Korean threat possess the technological and economic resources to respond in kind. The question is, will they develop an independent nuclear capability or can the United States contain the further spread of nuclear weapons in this area?
Henry Kissinger, perhaps the world’s leading nuclear strategist, recently voiced an ominous warning when he told the New York Times that if North Koreans “continue to have nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons must spread in the rest of Asia.” Dr. Kissinger believes that, “it cannot be that North Korea is the only Korean country in the world that has nuclear weapons, without the South Koreans trying to match it. Nor can it be that Japan will sit there. So therefore, we’re talking about nuclear proliferation.”
Every effort must be made to avoid the further growth of nuclear weapons in East Asia and elsewhere in the world. Consequently, while the name calling and endless posturing may be inevitable given the personalities involved, it is imperative that the United States provide iron-clad assurances to its allies in the Korean region that it will retaliate in the strongest of ways if North Korea were to commit a hostile act towards them.
The reliability of our defense alliances must now, more than ever, be beyond question. While threats issued by President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis may be appropriate, our allies in the region also need to be given every assurance that the United States is prepared to fulfill its leadership position and protect them from unwarranted aggression of a nuclear armed North Korea.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.