COMMENT: The Korean Crisis and Nuclear Dilemmas


Bob Howard

COUNCILLOR COMMENT: What should be done about North Korea’s nuclear posturing? What can be done about it?

Pyongyang sees itself as besieged, and like others before it, has sought nuclear weapons in the belief that they offer some sort of ultimate deterrent against attack. We may assume, in this context how it interpreted the experience of Iraq: that states without nuclear weapons are vulnerable. As well, though it is the US that is the target of Pyongyang’s current invective, it is at least imaginable that Pyongyang might also be concerned about its security in the face of nuclear armed Russia and China. We are often reminded that Iran is surrounded by nuclear states – Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and India – and that this makes Teheran’s interest in similar capabilities at least understandable. Why wouldn’t the same reasoning apply in the case of North Korea? There is a sense in all of this of the horse having already bolted. It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which Pyongyang could be persuaded to abandon its fledgling nuclear capability. To date, South Africa is the only state to do this, and the situation there was quite different to the one that currently pertains on the Korean peninsula.

Those concerned about nuclear proliferation in Asia should now focus their attention on Japan and South Korea.  The conventional wisdom is that Japan’s understandable and palpable sensitivity about nuclear weapons – the famous “nuclear allergy” – along with the constraints of the country’s “peace constitution”, has helped keep Japan out of the nuclear weapons club. But there are indications that this posture could change. There is increasing concern in Japan about the security challenge posed by China’s rise, highlighted by the recent spats over the islands in the East China Sea, and Prime Minister Abe seems keen to amend the Constitution in a manner that would allow Japan more room to move in the security area.  Like Japan, South Korea has also eschewed nuclear weapons, but also like Japan, South Korea is a major industrial power and has the wherewithal to develop a significant nuclear capability should it choose to do so.

The history of non-proliferation bears testimony to the effectiveness of security guarantees in discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons.  Indeed, in his recent talk to the Sydney branch of the AIIA, Dr Alexander Zhebin explained how the collapse of Soviet guarantees to North Korea had a lot to do with Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Both Tokyo and Seoul have strong security ties with the US, and undermining the credibility of these ties would, at the very least, strengthen the arguments for indigenous nuclear capabilities in Japan and South Korea. This poses a dilemma with regards to formulating a response to North Korea. Pyongyang seeks a reduction in the American military presence in East Asia, and while there are few grounds for believing this would encourage North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, there is every reason to believe that the consequent erosion of the credibility of US guarantees to Japan and South Korea would encourage proliferation to those two countries. This is hardly an outcome that would enhance the security of our region.

Bob Howard is a Councillor at the AIIA (NSW).


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