“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 US’s 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 IISS’s 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 Korea’s 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 doesn’t 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 line’ over Syria’s use of chemical weapons; loose statements by President Trump that Japan and South Korea should in effect get off America’s 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 China’s 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 ‘nuclear’ and 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 Korea’ security vis a vis North Korea may be ‘safeguarded’ by 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 anyone’s guess. If they wouldn’t 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, “Japan’s Nuclear Hedge”, would involve Japan’s 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.