Obama’s weakness and Xi Jinping’s bullying are about to start a nuclear arms race in Asia

Next Wednesday, the full Senate will vote on, and almost certainly pass, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Actan almost unprecedented bipartisan vote of no confidence against a sitting president’s foreign policy. If the bill becomes law, it will legislate the biggest shift in our North Korea policy in more than two decades.

Meanwhile, our Asian allies are holding another, quieter vote of no confidence on our North Korea policy. During the power vacuum of the Obama years, China accelerated its military buildup and made a series of spurious territorial grabs in the Pacific. Japan responded to China’s buildup and its claims to the Senkaku Islands with its own rearmament program. Despite the presence of nearly 30,000 American military personnel in South Korea, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, shelled South Korean territory, planted the mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, and got away with all of it without losing China’s financial backing. Then, last week, two Chinese aircraft intruded into South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed reef of Ieodo.

Clearly, the deterrents that protected South Korea since the 1950s aren’t working anymore. Outwardly, South Korea still relies on the U.S. to guarantee its security. Its decision to accept a deployment of the THAAD missile defense system will offer some protection against North Korea’s nuclear missiles, but no practical defense against North Korea’s long-range, chem-and-bio-capable, multiple-launch 300-millimeter artillery rockets.

If the Sunshine Policy was South Korea’s all-night borrachera, its hangover was to wake up next to a morbidly obese high-school dropout with a penchant for the NBA, torturing small animals, bondage porn, and gruesome executions, and who has nukes and the apparent intent to keep them. If South Korea is starting to see its security differently, so would you if you were South Korea. How would you calculate the potential outcomes of North Korea’s escalating provocation cycles once His Corpulency has an effective nuclear monopoly on the Korean peninsula?

South Korea nukes

[Via Alastair Gale on Twitter]

America’s political uncertainties can’t offer much reassurance, either. If the very words “President Trump” don’t scare you enough, ask yourself whether a President Trump or a President Cruz would stay engaged in the region. Would Hillary Clinton, who never formed a coherent strategy to disarm North Korea or executed any other policy with particular competence as Secretary of State, suddenly come up with and execute one as president? Would President Sanders really threaten nuclear retaliation against a North Korean first strike? Even if he did, would Kim Jong-un believe him or gamble that he was bluffing? If I couldn’t nuke Pyongyang, I can’t imagine that Bernie Sanders could.

My point here is that a promise to nuke an enemy for a friend assumes more than a security or fiscal burden. It assumes a moral and historical burden that may well be unbearable for modern America, especially given all that could happen in today’s world. The world might forgive South Korea for massive retaliation, but it would never forgive us. That’s why I wonder how much America’s so-called nuclear umbrella is really worth today, and so do a growing number of people in Seoul:

The South feels insecure because of the nuclear threat by the North and, more importantly, the lack of a counterpunch it pack have to prevent the North from using nuclear weapons against it.

Thereby, the next question for the South is whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella is good enough to cope with this fast-changing status. Obviously, it’s not.

Above all, the umbrella is a deterrent. To borrow a metaphor, the umbrella was not made for a new purpose ? the North, a rogue state led by an unpredictable 32-year-old dictator. More importantly, it has never been used so its effectiveness is still in question.

First, would the U.S. act in kind, if the North attacked the South with its nukes? In the era of MAD, a nuclear war would have meant a world war and the Americans would have been the first targets of the Soviets.

Against the North, a small country with a population of 20 million, the U.S. would be bound to think twice, especially when it is incomparably stronger in conventional weaponry and few of its people would get killed.

A blood stain is still on its collective conscience as the only country that has ever used nuclear devices against humans, Hiroshima and Nagasaki during its war with Japan in the Second World War. From the U.S. perspective, it is no 9/11 or even the attack on the Pearl Harbor. This alone means a great reduction in the credibility of the U.S.-extended deterrence. [Oh Young-jin, The Korea Times]

I’ve never been a great fan of Oh Young-jin, but his perspective is probably a fair reflection of the hawkish and nationalist inclinations of many South Koreans today. The idea of a nuclear South Korea has just entered the country’s political mainstream. 

“It is time to possess a peaceful nuclear program for the right of self-defense.”

This declaration came not from North Korean state media, but South Korean lawmaker Won Yoo-cheol of the ruling Saenuri Party on January 7, the day after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test.

More politicians from the ruling party have echoed this argument, saying “only South Korea is isolated from nuclear (power) in Northeast Asia.” This is far from the first time that South Korean politicians have spoken in favor of nuclear arms: Former ruling party presidential candidate Cheong Mong-joon openly called for independent nuclear development in 2012, saying South Korea could “achieve peace without the ‘balance of fear.’”

Well-known columnist Kim Dae-jung of South Korea’s most influential newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, also spoke in favor of starting a conversation on the nuclear possession on February 2, saying that withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty may be necessary.

A certain segment of academia in Seoul has also spoken in favor of nuclear development. Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, generally an engagement-inclined expert, has recently been asserting the necessity of nuclear arms, even as he argues for the need to talk with North Korea following most inter-Korean incidents. [NK News, Choi Ha-young]

Yonhap, noting that “calls” for “the South to have its own nuclear deterrence … have grown,” quotes President Park Geun-hye as saying “she understands such a sentiment but made clear that her administration will stick to the policy of denuclearizing the entire peninsula.”

Since at least 2009, South Korea has been bargaining hard with the U.S. on a nuclear cooperation accord it wants to expand, to allow South Korea to “close the nuclear fuel cycle” by enriching and reprocessing nuclear fuel. Left mostly unsaid, but often implied, is the U.S. worry that South Korea may want to use its nuclear energy industry as a cover to develop its own nuclear deterrent.

Openly withdrawing from the NPT or declaring an intent to build nuclear weapons would draw disastrous diplomatic consequences for Seoul, so it would want to nuke up quietly. Politicians who want to nuke up would have to stay ambiguous about it, just like Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan all did. Japan, which can reprocess nuclear fuel, reportedly has a “bomb in the basement,” with enough plutonium to go nuclear within as little as six months

The drawbacks of a nuclear South Korea for the U.S. are obvious, starting with the collapse of global nuclear nonproliferation, severe strains on the U.S.-Korea alliance, and the fact that South Korea’s nukes will reinforce North Korea’s nuclear status while doing nothing to deter the real North Korean threat to the United States — that North Korea sells a nuke to a terrorist (which it has threatened to do) or nuclear technology to another state that arms terrorists (which it has tried to do).

It’s certainly not an ideal outcome. The ideal outcome would be a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, bread that tastes great and doesn’t make you fat, and commuting over I-66 in a pod racer. But if the ideal solution is out of reach, the next-best solution would be not giving the most aggressive, most brutal, and least restrained regimes on the block an effective nuclear monopoly. 

Of course, China would have fits about being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors, but there’s a certain justice in that, given all that China has done over the years to nuke North Korea up. And if you’re a small nation under the rapacious gaze of China and North Korea, nuclear weapons are a cheap and effective way to protect yourself. If you’re Taiwan, a marginalized ally with little reason to believe it’s still under Uncle Sam’s umbrella, nuclear weapons make particularly good sense.

Not for the first time in recent years, the weak diplomacy of well-meaning, peace-loving politicians and diplomats has undermined the very policies that preserved peace and averted conflict, and tempted states to reach for more forceful ones. The Obama Administration’s weak deterrence and weaker sanctions against North Korea have undermined the security framework that protected peace and incubated prosperity in (what is now) the world’s most dynamic region. It’s a future full of dreary ironies. The greatest of these is that a President who wanted a world without nuclear weapons may have, as his legacy, that he scared half the world into nuking up. 

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Update: I’ve always been impressed by how quickly ideas catch fire in South Korea.

A right-wing South Korean journalist insisted on Friday that South Korea and Japan push for their own nuclear armament for protection from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

In a contribution to the conservative Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun, Cho Gab-je said that the two countries should be nuclear-armed for legitimate self-defense as long as a neighboring enemy is armed with atomic bombs.

Cho, former president of Monthly Chosun, said nuclear armament is a very natural option for the sovereign countries whose existence is being jeopardized constantly.

He also said the two countries should be able to ask for the revision of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) so that they are able to push for their nuclear armament under Article 10 of the NPT.

“It is possible for the two countries to give prior notice for the withdrawal from the NPT as they are faced with a crisis of national existence due to constant nuclear threats,” he said.

“South Korea and Japan should ask the United States to participate in the decision-making process of the U.S. nuclear umbrella strategy,” Cho said, insisting the U.S. nuclear umbrella promised to both countries, respectively, will have to be revamped into a combined command system among the three countries.

The reports have Xi Jinping’s attention, and he doesn’t sound happy:

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Friday that there should be neither nuclear weapons nor war on the Korean Peninsula as he spoke by phone with President Park Geun-hye for the first time since the North’s nuclear test last month.

Xi also said that all relevant parties should deal with the situation in a “cool-headed” manner from the perspective of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula while sticking to the principle of dialogue and negotiations, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“Under any circumstances, China will consistently make efforts to realize Korean-Peninsula denuclearization, safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula and resolve problems through dialogue and negotiations,” Xi was quoted as saying.

And yet, when President Park asked Xi to help disarm North Korea through economic pressure, Xi pretty much gave Park the big F-U, just like his Foreign Minister did with John Kerry. I’m not saying that South Korea should nuke up or shouldn’t, but Xi shouldn’t be surprised that ideas like these gain currency when he won’t lift a finger to help protect South Korea’s fundamental national security interests from threats by one of his clients.

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Update 2: Don Kirk, who has been covering Korea long enough to give almost any story its full historical context, relates the long history of South Korea’s nuclear program, and how the U.S. pressured Park Chung-hee to end it. Then, as now, the program was driven by the fear of an aggressive North Korea, and a fear of U.S. disengagement. Given that North Korea got its first experimental nuclear reactor in the 1960s, I wonder whether Park or Kim Il-sung was the first to get the idea of going nuclear. What matters, in the end, is that Park’s backers forced him to end his nuclear program, and Kim’s backers just threw money at him and his successors.