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N. Korea nuclear test: Will it spoil Obama's disarmament plans?

Pyongyang's recent nuclear tests have hawks in neighboring South Korea and Japan clamoring for nuclear weapons of their own and China jittery about its own stockpile. The US is caught in the middle. 

By Staff writer / February 15, 2013

A visitor walks past North Korea's Russian made Scud-B ballistic missile (C in grey) and South Korea's US made Hawk surface-to-air missiles at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul Friday.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters



President Obama may have dreams of advancing his ambitious nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament goals in his second term, but North Korea’s third nuclear test this week risks spoiling that vision by setting off a nuclear race in an increasingly uneasy Northeast Asia.

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In the wake of Pyongyang’s latest nuclear blast – and its hints that it intends to carry out additional nuclear tests in the coming months – political leaders and media in both South Korea and Japan are suggesting that the pressure to fight fire with fire and go nuclear may be too hard to resist.

And any moves in the region to build nuclear arsenals in response to a belligerent North Korea would no doubt have repercussions in China, nuclear experts say, especially since Beijing – already involved in a tense territorial dispute with Japan – would likely respond by augmenting its own nuclear arsenal.

“There are a lot of clocks running here, but they’re all counting down towards the same outcome, and that’s the nuclear cliff,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Arlington, Va..

Both Japan and South Korea have security treaties with the United States that place them under the US nuclear umbrella. In effect that means they shouldn’t need their own nuclear arsenals because the US is obligated to defend them in the case of an aggression.

But the North’s nuclear test has led to public musings in both countries that maybe their no-nukes policies need to change.

In South Korea, conservative members of the National Assembly and like-minded media have said the country must consider matching the North. One lawmaker declared that stones are not good enough for fighting a gangster with a machine gun. South Korea’s soon-departing president, Lee Myung-bak, described the recent calls for South Korea to go nuclear as “patriotic” in a newspaper interview.

“I don’t think the comments are wrong because they also serve as a warning to North Korea and China,” President Lee told the Dong-A libo newspaper.

In Japan, the nationalist and surging Japan Restoration Party has been the main source of calls for developing nuclear weapons – to counter not just North Korea, party leaders say, but also nuclear powers China and Russia.

Officially Japan’s position is that, since it is prohibited in its constitution from developing an offensive military capability, its counter to regional aggression is the US-Japan security alliance. But Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has lent support to the idea of amending the constitution to allow for a more robust defensive posture. Some Japan analysts say that move is aimed at least in part at opening the way to a nuclear arsenal.


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