Emboldened North Korea pushes neighbors to seek self-defense

South Korea joined a US-led program to block shipments of nuclear material. In Japan, a lawmaker urged first-strike capability.

As North Korea further ratcheted up tensions in Asia Tuesday, launching two more test missiles a day after exploding a nuclear device, its neighbors cast around for ways of reining in Pyongyang that might put a halt to its nuclear ambitions.

Mostly, they came up only with words. But some of those words were unusually belligerent, raising fears of a regional arms race as countries such as Japan and South Korea ponder how to reduce their vulnerability.

"Our country should have the capability to attack missile-launch bases to prevent any launch," Gen Nakatani, a former defense minister and a lawmaker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters, arguing that North Korea's actions meant that Tokyo should build a controversial first-strike capability. These views have become increasingly popular among members of the LDP.

In Seoul, South Korea's largest daily, Chosun Ilbo, urged the government to go nuclear so as to match Pyongyang's strength.

"It may be premature to talk like this," says Han Suk-hee, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. "But the political mood is already swinging that way."

All eyes on UN Security Council

For the time being, attention is focused on the United Nations Security Council, where American, Japanese, and South Korean diplomats began drafting what they said would be a strong resolution condemning Monday's nuclear test. Whether North Korean allies Russia and China would support tougher economic sanctions, however, remained unclear.

In Japan, many lawmakers advocate tightening sanctions against the North. But Japan has few options left to put pressure on Pyongyang, as it already extended economic sanctions, including a ban on imports, by a year after the North fired a long-range missile in April.

Seoul, though, took a long-awaited step in response to the test, joining the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a 94-nation group seeking to intercept ships carrying weapons of mass destruction or related technology. North Korea had warned that it would consider such a move tantamount to a declaration of war.

Talks still on the table?

The PSI, however, is aimed at curbing nuclear proliferation, not at denuclearizing North Korea, which has been the goal of international diplomatic efforts in recent years.

"The question is whether we really try to denuclearize North Korea" any more, says Paik Hak-soon, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul, South Korea. "Eventually, we will have to face this fundamental question, and see whether UN Security Council measures or joining the PSI were helpful."

"The US and other countries don't have a wide array of options" when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang, adds Dr. Paik. "Possibly they have just one: to go back to the negotiating table," since sanctions have so far proved ineffectual.

That is China's position, too; Beijing called Monday for a resumption of the sporadic six-party talks it has been hosting that are aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang, however, declared last month that it would never return to those talks.

"It is beyond China's capability to get rid of North Korea's nuclear program, and it is beyond the six-party talks' capability, too," argues Yan Xuetong, head of Tsinghua University's International Affairs school in Beijing.

Though Beijing is likely to make renewed efforts to kickstart the talks, "I cannot predict that they will be successful," says Professor Yan.

The Chinese government, however, "still thinks there is room and time for dealing," he adds. North Korea's bid to develop nuclear missiles "is not seen as such an urgent issue that it needs dealing with tomorrow."

That does not accord with the mood in South Korea.

"Most people here believe the talks are gone, moribund," says Yonsei's Professor Han. Monday's test, he believes, means that "the government cannot run any conciliatory policy toward North Korea," even if it had wanted to.

"We are open to continued talks, but if they [the North Koreans] don't want to talk, there is nothing we can do," Han adds. "The talk now is of how to defend ourselves against potential aggression. We could be the biggest victims ... and we have no option but to defend ourselves."

Similar sentiments could be heard Tuesday in Tokyo.

"At the moment Japan cannot take any initiative. Japan cannot act on its own," says Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University and a former general in Japan's Self Defense Forces.

"So we should certainly consider active missile defenses ... attacking enemy bases," he argues. "And Japan should be building up its military strength more quickly."

Nervous despite US security umbrella

Possibly in anticipation of such reactions, US President Barack Obama pledged to defend Japan and South Korea when he called their leaders Tuesday, apparently hoping to reassure their publics that they are secure beneath the US security umbrella.

Certainly, both countries would find it expensive and time-consuming to develop their own nuclear weapons. They would also alienate the US, committed not only to nuclear nonproliferation but to the vision of a nuclear-free world that Mr. Obama proclaimed during his recent visit to Europe.

Nonetheless, warns Han, "I think there is a greater likelihood of a move toward more radical confrontation than of conciliation at this moment" between the two Koreas.

Takehiko Kambayashi contributed to this story from Tokyo.

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