Washington has always managed to keep Tokyo and Seoul from pursuing nuclear ambitions, but a blustering U.S. president could change that in months.
One of the more troubling discoveries during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign was just how casual Republican candidate Donald Trump’s attitudes about nuclear weapons really were. His commitment to unpredictability as a strategy, his private statements that nuclear weapons should be used if we have them, and his conviction that nuclear proliferation is inevitable could, if they evolve into actual policies, create a much more dangerous nuclear world. Although Trump agreed with Hillary Clinton that “nuclear is the single-greatest threat,” his alternative approaches could dramatically expand those threats. In Northeast Asia, which already combines nuclear potential with long-standing enmities, the consequences could be deeply dangerous.
To be fair, Trump’s campaign was more notable for bombast than nuance and policy development will await his political appointments over the next few months. But if two of the positions he claimed on the campaign trail turn into actual policy — that allies should shoulder more of their defense burden and that nuclear proliferation is inevitable — security in Northeast Asia is likely to become much more tenuous. Together these have led Trump to conclude and declare that acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea is a solution to North Korea’s nuclear weapons. These outrageous statements are probably what prompted South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to be among the first to phone the president-elect for reassurance.
Trump first raised eyebrows last spring when he began suggesting that the United States was spending too much defending its allies. Trump called NATO, a treaty almost as old as he is and one that is widely regarded as the linchpin of European defense, “obsolete.”
And in a New York Times interview in March, Trump said he would be willing to withdraw U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea if they did not substantially increase their contributions to the costs of housing and feeding those troops. This was accompanied by the suggestion that he would be willing to let both countries develop their own nuclear forces to defend themselves against North Korea.
When pressed on his statements in a town hall meeting in March, Trump responded: “It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them, or we have to get rid of them entirely.”
Such an approach would reverse more than four decades of hard-won U.S. (and now global) nuclear nonproliferation policy, and ignores the commitments of Japan and South Korea under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty not to acquire nuclear weapons. Holding Asia, with its particular set of threats, to these commitments has not always been easy. The United States spent considerable effort walking back covert nuclear weapons programs in Taiwan and South Korea in the 1970s. South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee — father of the current president — began his nuclear weapons program in response to U.S. troop withdrawals, exactly what Trump promises today on a grander scale.
In the 1970s, however, South Korea faced only a conventional threat from North Korea — albeit one potentially backed by Chinese nuclear weapons. Today, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is unfettered and accelerating at an alarming rate. In 2016 alone, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and over 22 ballistic missile tests. While North Korean claims of having a hydrogen bomb are greatly exaggerated, there is little question that the North is advancing toward much more powerful, perhaps even boosted, fission weapons.
So far, South Korea has responded by improving conventional missile ranges, continuing exercises with the United States, and installing missile defenses that have aroused Chinese criticism. But a handful of South Korean politicians and journalists in the last few years has called for South Korea to acquire its own nuclear weapons. So far they have stayed on the fringes. But Park’s current severe political scandal may topple her government before her term ends in 2017, with uncertain political results. An unpredictable ally in Washington suggesting South Korea go it alone could shift the political calculus in Seoul in favor of nuclear weapons.
A nuclear-armed Seoul would almost certainly provoke a response by Tokyo. Although linked through their separate alliances with the United States, South Korea and Japan labor under historical and political tensions. At a minimum, a shift in Seoul’s nuclear policy would throw Japanese politics into disarray, but it could also have a domino effect.
Japan abandoned its own World War II nuclear weapons program, and most observers conclude that the atomic bombing by the United States of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 left the Japanese public with a strong conviction that nuclear weapons were an abomination. Still, Japan is the only non-nuclear weapon state that has both sensitive uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing capabilities, a fact that its neighbors (China and South Korea) attribute to Japan’s desire to maintain a latent nuclear weapons capability. These are precisely the capabilities that were the target of limits in the nuclear deal with Iran and that greatly shorten the time it would take to make a nuclear weapon. For this reason, the time it would take for Japan to make its first nuclear weapon would probably be measured in months, compared with the years it would take South Korea to develop a nuclear bomb.
It’s hard to assess which would have more severe consequences for Northeast Asian security — a withdrawal of U.S. forces or the nuclearization of Japan and South Korea. Beyond Northeast Asia, however, the withdrawal of Japan and South Korea from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would damage the global nonproliferation regime irrevocably and call into question the United States’ commitments of extended deterrence to all its other allies.
If there is a silver lining in all this, it is that Trump is likely to learn very quickly that it is in no country’s interest for the United States to walk away from defending Japan and South Korea, including China and Russia. And, that the norm of nonproliferation is stronger than he suspected.
Rather than abandoning its allies in the region, the Trump administration will need to confront the North Korean nuclear threat head-on. U.S. engagement is critical, but it needs to be nuanced. Belligerent rhetorical exchanges with North Korea of the sort the George W. Bush administration engaged in could set in motion a chain of events from which no country would benefit. It would therefore be useful for Trump to adopt two principles of engagement when it comes to Northeast Asia and nuclear weapons: Don’t make the situation worse, and combine incentives with patience (a “wait-and-bait” approach). There may be room in this model for Trump’s trademark unpredictability vis-à-vis North Korea, but not for American allies in the region, who need all the assurances they can get.
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