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.
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One explanation for the recent surge in warnings of a “no other choice” recourse to nuclear weapons is a desire to – as South Korea’s Lee suggests – jolt China into pressuring its allies in Pyongyang, some regional experts say.Skip to next paragraph
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“Surely Beijing could understand why South Korea and Japan would find it hard to calmly accept a nuclear North Korea,” wrote Doug Bandow, a foreign policy fellow and Asia expert at the CATO Institute in Washington, in a recent post on the CATO website. Were Pyongyang to remain on its current path of nuclear arms and missile development, he adds, the US might decide that the best defense would be for Japan and South Korea to develop their own “countervailing nuclear weapons."
“Then [China] would share the nightmare of proliferation in Northeast Asia," he said.
The NPEC’s Mr. Sokolski agrees that some of what’s going on is an effort to pressure China into doing something to halt the North Korean regime’s nuclear train. But he sees little chance of such pressure being successful.
“Don’t kid yourself, China is not going to do very much," he says. "And even if they did, it’s not going to be enough to turn this off.”
Why? While North Korea may be the immediate cause of the nuclear jitters, Sokolski says, the rivalries and tensions among China, Japan, and South Korea are an underlying critical element.
Noting that the South Koreans consider Japan to already be among the world’s nuclear-capable countries, he says, “In South Korea, they say, ‘We are living between two nuclear-arming countries, North Korea and Japan.’ It’s justification for moving farther down the nuclear road.”
This is where the US comes in. South Korea wants to renegotiate its atomic energy deal with the US to allow for “reprocessing” of spent fuel from the country’s nuclear plants. The US, worried that reprocessed fuel could eventually be used to build nuclear weapons, has been cool to the idea.
But South Korea argues that Japan already has the right to reprocess its nuclear fuel. And when the US and South Korea sit down to consider revising the existing nuclear energy deal – sometime after President-elect Park Geun-hye takes office later this month – South Korean officials are likely to complain about their perception that Washington has favored Tokyo over Seoul in this area.
Despite the troubling prospects of a nuclearized Northeast Asia, some regional experts say there are alternatives. One option, apparently favored by Russia, would be for China to agree to join any future round of US-Russia nuclear arms reduction talks. China is mum on the size of its nuclear arsenal, although it is considered to have many fewer warheads than the US or Russia. Seeing Beijing willing to discuss its arsenal and at least consider reductions could reduce proliferation risks, experts say.
But Sokolski notes that Northeast Asia’s nuclear scenario will remain complex and tense – and the US will stay in the middle of it all.
Both Japan and South Korea support in principle a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and universal nuclear disarmament. But he says they also see the US reducing its warheads in accords with Russia, even as no one knows for sure what arsenal China has. “And they say, ‘OK, maybe it’s time for us to develop out own option.’ ”