Since the very early years of the Cold War, two of Asia’s most important and progressive countries Japan and South Korea have predicated most of their defense and foreign policy decisions on the assumption they would be protected, in the final analysis, by America's nuclear umbrella.
To an even greater extent than Western Europe, where Britain and France insisted on their own small nuclear deterrent forces in spite of America’s guarantee, these two sophisticated Asian economic powers agreed to forswear nuclear weapons altogether. For decades, that contributed not only to the stability of Asia, but also to America's relative leverage in the region. With the decision of North Korea to test a nuclear weapon, those days may now be numbered.
The early results of North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear tests may, ironically, work against the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang, convincing South Korea and China, for instance, to drop the petty historical dispute that has prevented them from uniting against a mutually perceived threat to peace in their backyard. Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in fact broke a five-year moratorium on meetings with the South Korean and Chinese leaders the very week the North chose to gatecrash the nuclear club. There is hope in Washington of finally convincing key players—and especially China, which alone has real leverage on the North—to slap the kind of political and economic sanctions on the regime that force it to heed world opinion.
In the longer term, however, the North Korean test could prove an important nail in the coffin of America’s five-decade dominance of Asian security issues. The nuclear test shakes Japanese and South Korean faith, which has already eroded over the past several years, in the basic Cold War bargain and will transform their attitudes about their own security.
As a South Korean diplomat at the United Nations put it to me last year, “Much of our thinking for the past two decades, and in Japan, too, I would say, has been based on the idea that we are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If the U.S. cannot prevent North Korea from testing a nuclear weapon, how can it deter North Korea from using one? That's the basic question being asked today.”
So far, the reaction of North Korea’s Asian neighbors has been moderate: careful condemnations, calls for sanctions, pledges to work for a peaceful solution, etc. This certainly is a far cry from Pakistan’s tit-for-tat, nuke-for-nuke response to India’s 1998 nuclear test. But those who make a living tracking proliferation threats remain concerned. Both South Korea and Japan are signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the treaty North Korea renounced in 2003 before its final push for nuclear weaponry began. Yet, of all the non-nuclear states that have pondered, secretly or openly, the wisdom of going nuclear, none is more capable of fielding an actual arsenal as quickly and completely as Japan and South Korea are.
As the only nation ever to suffer a nuclear attack, Japan has repeatedly vowed in the years since 1945 to never “develop, use, or allow the transportation of nuclear weapons through its territory.” It later emerged Japan had, in fact, studied the idea during the 1960s. By and large, however, Japan has been true to its word. Yet Japan, more vulnerable than any other major industrial nation to oil crises, also developed a civilian nuclear power in dustry larger than any outside France and the United States. This expanding network of nuclear plants, which Japan hopes will produce over 40 percent of national electricity needs by 2010, also produced spent plutonium at levels which alarm nonproliferation ex perts. While this is not “bomb-grade” plutonium in the strictest sense, experts believe Japan could quickly field an arsenal if it so chose. Michael Levi, an expert in arms control and proliferation at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Japan could nuclearize its military “in a matter of months, if not sooner.” This has led some to deem Japan a “paranuclear” state.
Such thoughts would have been quickly dismissed a decade ago given the lingering taboo and trauma caused by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In recent years, however, particularly since North Korea test-fired a missile in 1998 that crossed Japanese territory before splashing into the Pacific Ocean, some politicians have called for a rethinking of the pacifism imposed on Japan by the United States after World War II. Yasuhiro Nakasone, a former prime minister, told a reporter last month Japan needed “to study the issue of nuclear weapons.” Japan’s new prime minister, before winning power, expressed the opinion that nothing in the country's constitution specifically forbids development of a nuclear deterrent. Abe has been careful since the North Korean test to say Japan is not planning to go nuclear. But he clearly is aligned with those who feel a nuclear arsenal to be on the table for study.
As with Japan, South Korea’s sophisticated domestic nuclear power industry is poised to nuclearize if it so chooses. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, in South Korea’s official accounts, Seoul pursued a nuclear weapons program as vigorously as its communist archrival to the north. In fact, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who visited South Korea in 2003 discovered research on enriching plutonium continued until at least 2000. While the IAEA found no evidence of any military motive, it was a reminder of how little we may actually know about such activity there and elsewhere.
Ever since Amy Carter raised the issue with her presidential daddy in the late 1970s, nuclear nonproliferation has loomed like Oz in the thoughts of diplomats and policymakers—particularly those in the nations which made up the relatively stable Cold War-era “nuclear club,” the U.S., Russia (then the Soviet Union), France, Britain, China, and, with a wink and a nod because they have nukes but won’t publicly admit it, Israel. Like Oz, though, the concept of nonproliferation always looked bet ter from afar.
The closer any nation came to completing the nuclear fuel cycle, the more clearly futile efforts to prevent the next step turned out. In the end, those which came close and decided against actually test ing and fielding nuclear arms—South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, for instance—shied away for reasons of national interest, the strain on their scientific infrastructure, or the pure financial burden. Even Libya, which renounced its own nuclear designs in 2003, had little to show for its efforts and much to gain from dropping them.
Japan and South Korea certainly have the scientific prowess and financial ability to move in this direction, and no one, not even in Washington, contends they are wrong to feel threatened. Like China, India, Pakistan, and now North Korea, all of whom blasted their way into the nuclear club in past decades, these two economically minded powers may eventu ally find the benefits outweigh the slap on the hand such actions brought to previous gatecrashers. Until someone proves the consequences to be more serious than that, the temptation of going nuclear, and of having a permanent seat at the world’s big table as a result, may prove too much to resist.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.