ANDREW FARRAN. After North Korea: breakdown of regional non-proliferation?

The existence of a nuclear threat is not sufficient reason to go nuclear; if it were [these Asian states] would have nuclear arms by now. In each case, the reliability of the US security commitment is the dominant variable”.

An authoritative study of the potential for nuclear proliferation in the Northeast Asian region concluded that this was most unlikely among Japan, South Korea and Taiwan; but this outlook was conditional on the USs commitment to extended nuclear deterrence remaining credible in the eyes of each of those countries.  Under the title “Asia; Latent Nuclear Powers” by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, written by Mark Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of the IISSs Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program and a former Asia specialist in the US State Department, it was published in 2016 before the recent round of nuclear and missile tests in North Korea.

The study observes: “The existence of a nuclear threat is not sufficient reason to go nuclear; if it were [these states] would have nuclear arms by now. In each case, the reliability of the US security commitment is the dominant variable. Maintaining the credibility of US extended deterrence is the strongest safeguard of nuclear non-proliferation in the region.”

For this reason Japan has forgone serious thoughts of acquiring nuclear weapons, notwithstanding its adjacency to a nuclear armed Soviet Union during the Cold War and now Russia, the testing of a nuclear weapon by China in 1964, by India in 1974 (and its  fusion weapon test in 1998), by Pakistan in 1998, and of course since 2006 by North Korea. Domestic opposition to nuclear weapons, its adherence to the UN Non-Proliferation Treaty and a concern for adverse diplomatic and trade consequences of breaching the NPT, plus US discouragement of taking that option, has put Japan at the forefront of potential nuclear powers that have refrained from that course. However because of North Koreas nuclear testing, the nuclear option is no longer a taboo topic in Japan.

There is no doubt that Japan has the technical and industrial capacity to develop a nuclear weapon, including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. Lacking secure space for testing in an earthquake prone region could make an unassisted development  problematical.

South Korea too is skilled in nuclear technologies, though it doesnt possess as yet a secure means for developing fissile material for bombs. It has however strong missile and aerospace programs, and expertise in advanced solid-fuel technologies for its missiles. Over the decades since the 1970s South Korea has from time to time toyed with nuclear hedging strategies by keeping its options open should it be necessary.

For both, the development by North Korea not just of a nuclear weapon but the means also  of delivering one all the way to the US mainland must seriously question the continued credibility of the US nuclear umbrella – the premise on which extended nuclear deterrence is founded?

That deterrence requires a US willingness, should it come to the point, to risk sacrificing one or more of its cities to defend an Asian ally (as with Australia). Projected troop withdrawals from the peninsular and earlier equivocations by President Obama on the crossing of his ‘red lineover Syrias use of chemical weapons; loose statements by President Trump that Japan and South Korea should in effect get off Americas back and acquire their own nuclear weapons; and the failure so far to stop North Korea from taking its nuclear program to the stage where it has developed a hydrogen or fusion bomb and, moreover, ICBMs for delivering it to continental USA, strain confidence. The US response to Chinas anti-access/area denial (A2AZ) assertions in the Yellow and South China Seas has in addition been far from reassuring to these Asian allies, though a diplomatic modus vivendi is not yet out of the question in these maritime areas.

How might South Korea and Japan each respond to these specific and general uncertainties, and with what consequences for the Pacific area in general including Australia? This not only relates to their perceived, and possibly justifiable, concerns about North Korea, but also perhaps in time when they might both have gone ‘nuclearand long-standing animosities or historical issues between Japan and Korea (unified or otherwise) on the one hand, and between China and Japan, on the other, could again come to the fore? Japan and Russia too have on-going territorial issues of this nature.

For the time being South Koreasecurity vis a vis North Korea may be ‘safeguardedby the installation of THAAD, the high altitude non-nuclear anti-ballistic missile defence system which enables a fast reaction response to missile attacks before they penetrate territory and strike ships, etc. There is of course a variety of other conventional defence strategies available to them. Whether all these would suffice longer-term is anyones guess. If they wouldnt and North Korea maintains its aggressive, threatening stand indefinitely, nuclearisation may be  inevitable and could be achieved, according to reports, within one to four years depending on urgency.

With Japan the options may be more complicated. The US relationship has been its bedrock for generations. To go nuclear at this stage would be traumatic in the extreme, recalling the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs in 1945, and the Fukushima power plant disaster more recently, and they may look for effective half measures as a complement to US unilateral deterrence. A suggestion discussed in the IISS book based on a study by Samuels and Scoff, “Japans Nuclear Hedge”, would involve Japans abandonment of its long-standing policy of no nuclear weapons on its territory and would allow it to purchase or lease US nuclear weapons with cruise missiles, with the US maintaining the right of launch refusal; or the lease of US Trident missiles with co-development of a submarine platform and cooperation on warhead design, similar to the UK deterrent model; or the deployment of US nuclear weapons on Japanese territory under US control with release to Japan in the event of a crisis, similar to the NATO model.

As Fitzpatrick points out: “The first two models, and arguably the third as well, would put both countries in violation of the NPT as well as the Missile Technology Control Regime”. In those events the US/China relationship would be unlikely to survive. A high price to pay unless China, extremely unlikely, could be brought into a tripartite arrangement. If not, Japan would be back on its own, possibly nuclearized, having faced its worse fear that the US would choose China over itself when the chips were down, with all the implications of that. And all this because North Korea was not stopped in its tracks in the first place or at least sooner. Although blame can be cast on the UN Security Council for its ineffectiveness, a nuclear power’s guarantee is supposed to overcome such institutional difficulties.

Either way these allies may be left with being exposed unanswerably to nuclear blackmail, or each going nuclear in their own way with the unravelling of these long-standing regional non-proliferation objectives.

For Australia all of this would be profoundly disagreeable but may have to be faced. Retreat may be in order. That would put the forthcoming White Paper very out of date indeed.

Andrew Farran is a former Australian diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law. He is a long-standing member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.


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5 Responses to ANDREW FARRAN. After North Korea: breakdown of regional non-proliferation?

  1. Thanks Andrew. Your answer and my question amount to the same thing. If Australia is to crawl out from under the American umbrella we will have to stand on our own feet and be prepared to get wet.

    Both major political parties have the American alliance engraved on their DNA and the Greens are unlikely to form government any time soon. So we have to reverse the order of service. We will have to stand up straight before we fold up the umbrella.

    We will have to establish ourselves as a stable, secure nation, not a mere market to be exploited by the flexible and agile. This will involve major changes, including increased taxation.

    We don’t know who we are. That is the problem.

  2. Andrew Farran says:

    Responding to Jerry Roberts.

    Retreat from embracing the nuclear deterrent. It is more likely to provoke than protect.

  3. michael lacey says:

    James Roderick Lilley; January 15, 1928 – November 12, 2009 was an American diplomat who served as United States ambassador to China at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
    “Simply put, at the end of the Cold War, if North Korea didn’t exist we would have to create it as an excuse to keep the Seventh Fleet in the region.”

    Washington, D.C. White House tape recordings, April 25, 1971-
    President Nixon: “How many did we kill in Laos?”
    National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger: “In the Laotian thing, we killed about ten, fifteen thousand”
    President Nixon: “See the attack in the North Vietnam that we have in mind..power plants, whatever’s left, POL (Petroleum) the docks..and I think we ought to take the dikes out. Will that drown people?”
    Kissinger: “About two hundred thousand people.”
    Nixon: “I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that Henry?”
    Kissinger: “That, I think, would just be too much.”
    Nixon: “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big for Christ sakes.”

    “My conscience leaves me no other choice than to break the betrayal of my own silences…I know that the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.” The Reverend Martin Luther King,

  4. derrida derider says:

    The world is changing. It is not the US’ WILLINGNESS to provide a security umbrella for east Asia that is in question, it is its CAPACITY. Or, put another way, the real costs to the US of maintaining its empire are rising and clearly becoming insupportable.

    When Truman went to war in Korea and the ANZUS treaty and US guarantees for Japan were made, the US had over half of world GDP. When LBJ went to war in Vietnam, it had over a third of world output. When Bush1 went to war in the Gulf, it had about a quarter. When Bush the Lesser started a war, it had about a fifth. It now has a bit over a sixth. In fact depending how you measure it US GDP may now be less than China’s, and not much bigger than India’s.

    Regional powers, let alone China, can now impose unacceptable costs on the US in any war with it – and that rather than military victory is all that is needed for them to act independently, whether that independent action is deterring aggression or indulging in their own.

    Were I Japan my response to these latest troubles would be a crash rearmament program (economically, that’s even better than building all those bridges to nowhere anyway), a program would certainly include nukes. And SK is probably already developing them – they’d be mad not to.

    Trump is a narcissistic clown but he has this disconcerting habit of accidentally slipping into an unsayable truth. These ‘indiscretions’ usually get him into far more trouble than his many blustering lies, and precisely because they are true – politics, international or domestic, is a very peculiar trade.

    As for us, we have had previous experience of hitching our star to a declining empire and the results were not happy. It is way past time we started seeing ourselves as on the Asian fringe, seeking multilateral security arrangements with the near neighbours on the one hand and concentrating on DoA on the other, rather than being an outpost of the US empire.

  5. This is the best post I have read for a while, thanks Andrew. but can you elaborate on Australia’s “retreat.” Do you mean a concentration on defence of the Australian continent?

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