The U.S. government is two for three regarding recent decisions and statements on North Korea. The U.S. decision last month to turn down Seoul’s request for “strategic weapons” such as the B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers, which implies the positioning of nuclear weapons in South Korea, was the correct one – for reasons to be elucidated below.
In another significant development, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admits that North Korea has no reason to give up its nukes as long as it sees them as being the guarantee of survival in a hostile world aligned against them. He called efforts to get Kim Jong Un to relinquish his nuclear devices a “lost cause.”
Given these recent events, it would not be surprising for observers to conclude that the U.S. was finally moving in the right direction with two good decisions.
SOME HEADS REMAIN IN THE SAND
Well, not so fast. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken (apparently still in the fairytale world of Winken, Blinken, and Nod) refuses to accept the conclusion of the one single person in the United States most qualified to make such a declaration about North Korean denuclearization.
Most long-time analysts and observers of North Korea have reached the same conclusion long ago, yet here is a political appointee with little experience in Northeast Asian affairs asserting that the goal of the U.S. remains to have Pyongyang denuclearize.
Blinken, who replaced sociologist-turned-diplomat Wendy Sherman, has unabashedly stated that “We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state. We will not accept North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, period.”
This is nothing but spitting in the wind. North Korea does indeed have nuclear weapons – several of them – and it would appear that there isn’t anything that the U.S. is capable of doing about it that other than to deny the overt reality.
In dealing with the North’s nukes, several options exist, few of which are appealing. One is for Japan and/or South Korea to arm their respective countries with their own nuclear weapons. Japan could easily and quickly do so (please see my earlier essay on Japan’s nuclear abilities) but it is unclear how quickly South Korea could achieve operational nuclear weapons status. For either country to have its own strategic weapons, though, is unsettling. Currently, a balance of sorts does exist and such an expansion would most assuredly upset it.
South Korea’s request for the U.S. to station its strategic assets on the peninsula was to obviate the need for Seoul to develop its own. However, positioning such weaponry in South Korea would only harden Pyongyang’s commitment to continuing the development of its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. Regardless of whether ownership of such weapons was by Seoul or Washington, South Korea would become even more of a target.
In dealing with the North’s nukes, several options exist, few of which are appealing
To complicate matters further, the reactions of both China and Russia are likely to be volatile. Neither of those two countries want anything to jeopardize the precarious balance that exists. As we have seen over the past few months, even the introduction of defensive systems such as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is inflammatory, for Beijing and Moscow see such technology as a threat to their own weaponry.
Were Japan to make the decision to develop its nuclear arsenal to counter North Korea, much of Asia would react with fear and anger, clearly remembering the last time a militant Japan possessed weapons and the will to use them. Everyone but the U.S. would be incensed by such a decision. As a consequence, this option is as good as dead in the water.
FEW PALATABLE OPTIONS REMAIN
As for North Korea, seeing an array of hostile nuclear assets permanently on its doorstep, its reaction would be something akin to a geopolitical hissy fit of epic proportions.
One would wise to expect a series of serious provocations by Pyongyang until the West and its allies got the message that nuclear weapons possessed by either Seoul or Tokyo, or placed on the peninsula by the U.S., actually worsen conditions and destabilize the entirety of the region.
Unfair, you claim, that North Korea gets to have its toys but South Korea and Japan cannot have theirs? That may indeed be true, but realize that everyone has had decades in which to head off this dilemma and failed to do so. It is a case of now having to live with it, in the absence of some excruciatingly precise and intricately executed series of pre-emptive strikes to fully neutralize the North’s new status as a nuclear power. But then what about the collateral damage that Seoul is almost certain to suffer?
An option with the fewest drawbacks might be an American commitment to an increased presence in the East Sea/Sea of Japan and the East China Sea by U.S. nuclear submarines.
To be sure, this is just as unappealing to China, Russia, and North Korea – but it would be politically much more difficult to oppose, given the U.S. espoused devotion to Freedom of Navigation of the seas and extant treaty obligations between the United States and Korea or Japan. A public announcement of this as a general policy would suffice, no need to discuss when or where.
The time for comparatively easy solutions to the problem of North Korea has long passed. Now we must leverage two good decisions and hope for the best.
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Featured Image: North Korea 027 by rapidtravelchai on 2010-05-30 10:47:43