A Nuclear North Korea: Where Do We Go from Here?

Op-ed in the Straits Times

October 11, 2006

If nuclear weapons could be hermetically confined to the Korean peninsula, the North Korean nuclear test would be a regrettable development but a manageable one. For more than half a century the North Koreans have held South Korea's capital city Seoul hostage with forward-deployed artillery, but deterrence has held. For years any prudent military planner had to assume that the North Koreans had a small number of nuclear weapons. Today's development merely affirms the correctness of this assumption.

The problem, of course, is that the impact of North Korea's nuclear test cannot be limited to the Korean peninsula.

In the long run, North Korea's action threatens to set off an arms race in Northeast Asia, a region of rich, technologically advanced states. In Japan the North Korean action will strengthen political elements wishing to see it become more of a "normal country" with a more robust military capability and assertive foreign policy. From the standpoint of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, North Korea's nuclear test is an unwelcome development, but the timing could hardly be better.

Given its history and specific sensitivities as the only country to ever be victimized by their use, Japan will not immediately "go nuclear" though it has the nuclear, technical, and financial resources to do so. Rather, in the short run, Japan will respond by increasing its defense budget and enhancing cooperation with the United States. However, if North Korean belligerency intensifies, it is not inconceivable that Japan would permit the stationing of short-range nuclear missiles under US control on its soil. Such missiles would be intended as a deterrent against North Korea, with the maintenance of US control meant to reassure the rest of Asia that such a development did not represent the resurgence of unchecked Japanese militarism. In the long run, Japan could develop its own independent capability. The only constraint is political.

Another party that will watch these developments closely is Taiwan. In some ways in an analogous position to North Korea-feeling threatened militarily by a much larger power-if North Korea is able to develop a nuclear weapons capability without suffering severe penalties, the Taiwanese will surely consider emulation. Of course, China would not handle such a situation with the phlegmatic appeasement that Seoul has shown.

Which raises the issue of South Korea itself. Again, South Korea is capable of producing nuclear weapons and only foreswore their development under US pressure. South Korea also may be eventually tempted to emulate, especially if Japan goes nuclear.

In the end, China may find itself surrounded by nuclear powers.

The North Korean nuclear test has implications at the global level as well. North Korea presents the frightening specter of a broke, decrepit nuclear power. It has been involved in military cooperation with virtually every oil exporter and unsavory regime in the world, including Iran and Syria, to cite but two examples. Its state involvement in criminal activity such as counterfeiting and drug trafficking has been extensively documented, and the North Korean government has extensive contacts with criminal organizations globally.

The fear is that an alienated North Korean regime, with no stake in the existing order of international relations, will further its nuclear cooperation with other states with nuclear ambitions or nonstate actors such as al Qaeda, or worse yet, actually export fissile material or an actual weapon.

History suggests that abandonment of nuclear weapons or an advanced nuclear weapons program is usually preceded by political regime change: In three of the four cases where states gave up nuclear weapons (Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), newly installed governments seeking to assert democratic credentials and gain international acceptance voluntarily surrendered weapons left over from the Soviet Union. The situation was a little more complicated in the South African case: The apartheid-era government made the decision to surrender its weapons prior to a regime change in the context of a reduced external threat from Soviet proxies in southern Africa following the collapse of the Soviet Union, concerns about the use of weapons by a postapartheid successor regime, and a bid to gain international legitimacy.

Similarly, the joint decision in 1988 by Argentina and Brazil to halt their programs occurred in the context of newly installed democratic regimes asserting their authority over their militaries by reversing decisions undertaken by preceding military governments.

The most recent case, that of Libya, occurring in the context of changing external circumstances and a broad Libyan attempt resolve longstanding diplomatic irritants, is interesting in that it appears to deviate from the pattern of terminating nuclear weapons programs following internal regime change. Libya did not possess nuclear weapons, however, only a nuclear weapons program, so presumably the value of the program-and hence the cost of surrendering it-was less to the government as compared with actual weapons.

Such considerations suggest that there is a slight chance of putting the genie back into the bottle through the Six Party Talks. More likely is that the world will have to adjust to a nuclear-armed North Korea. The example of Pakistan demonstrates that while countries may initially respond to a nuclear test by imposing sanctions, both internal and diplomatic considerations eventually encourage their removal. In the case at hand, the imposition of significant economic sanctions are expected, but it is doubtful that such sanctions will be sufficient to reverse North Korea's course of action. The prospect of subjecting its people to hardship is unlikely to deter North Korea's government from its chosen path. As Pyongyang has surely deduced, the sanctions threat is not entirely credible. China and South Korea, its primary economic patrons, fear political instability on the Korean peninsula more than they fear a nuclear-armed North Korea. In the end, they will resume support for the regime. From the standpoint of the North Korean government, a couple years of "arduous marching" and the world will have to come to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.