THE evidence mounts that North Korea has, or is about to have, a crude home-grown nuclear weapon. The prospect of such a weapon in the hands of the world's last Stalinist regime is of concern to all its neighbors and to everyone worried about the proliferation of nuclear death-machines.
But are we barking up the wrong tree when we ask only what effect North Korean production of a nuclear weapon would have on the effort to fight nuclear proliferation?
The North Koreans have threatened for months to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They only signed it eight years ago and have never reached a satisfactory agreement on the kinds of inspections it requires.
Concern about Pyongyang's current actions is heightened because next year the NPT is due to expire unless its signatories decide to extend its term. Some analysts argue that if North Korea is seen as withdrawing from the treaty (which it is free to do, after a notice period), and is seen as paying no price for this withdrawal, the value of the treaty will be badly undermined. Others judge that if North Korea follows the ``Iraqi route'' of staying in the NPT while cheating, that would undermine the treaty even more.
Either way, American discussion over Pyongyang's efforts often pays little attention to the broader regional issues closely connected with President Kim Il Sung's pursuit of very unsettling policies.
The present North Korean challenge to the East Asian balance of power comes at an awkward point for the region's security system. Throughout 40 years of cold war, East Asian policymakers operated in a predictable regional environment. True, the region saw two of the cold war's fiercest battles on the Korean peninsula and in Vietnam. But throughout those battles, East Asian decisionmakers felt they understood both the rules of the superpower rivalry game and the stakes involved.
Over the past three years, all that has changed. Russia's ability to project power in East Asia has collapsed. The United States has trimmed its force presence. But more important to East Asian security has been the (quite justified) perception of a huge decrease in American willingness to use these forces in a post-cold-war world. This perception has caused many East Asian defense planners to consider wholly new scenarios for a region in which populous and nuclear-armed China is by far the largest remaining power.
The challenge has been particularly acute for Japan. For 45 years, Japan nestled safely under the American nuclear umbrella. So long as the Soviets and the Americans were poised on a nuclear hair-trigger, the presence of thousands of American troops in Japan and the existence of a strong mutual security pact guaranteed that any attack on Japan would spark instant American involvement. This is still true and likely will be for some years to come. But to do their job right, Japanese defense planners must have asked themselves how long this will continue to be an expectation their country can rely on. And afterwards, what?
In recent months, some Japanese defense planners have reportedly been trying to determine what their country would need to build its own nuclear weapons. This would pose no technical problems to Japan's military industries. What has prevented it from happening so far has been the government's adherence to its obligations under the NPT to forswear nuclear-weapons development.
What would happen to the global counter-proliferation effort if Japan chose to break out of the NPT? It was unsettling enough last year when the Japanese imposed a small but noticeable delay on approving a summit-level announcement of support to the NPT. What will Japan's position be next year, as the NPT extension discussions move to their close? All of Japan's neighbors in East Asia would feel severely threatened by any Japanese breakout.
The US is deeply involved in the region's security issues. But Washington cannot hope to resolve these issues on its own - and, unlike the situation in Europe, there is no existing military alliance of regional powers accustomed to working together on security questions.
The regional balance in prosperous East Asia, and the worldwide fight against nuclear proliferation, are both key issues affecting prospects for world peace in the closing years of the century. They are tough ones to deal with. The US will have to find a way to do so that is not based on any assumption of superpower status. Welcome to the post-superpower era.