Here is the next part in my series on U.S. policy options for North Korea.
Option 2: A Regional Nuclear Rebalancing
Since North Korea’s past behavior suggests it is not motivated entirely by security concerns, but also an attempt to secure concessions from the ROK, Japan and the U.S. through intimidation and nuclear blackmail, an entirely new approach may be necessary. A nuclear rebalancing in the region entails the United States making clear to the DPRK that should it continue its current nuclear program, Washington will no longer oppose Tokyo’s or Seoul’s pursuit of their own nuclear deterrent and leave the decision to each respective government. The U.S. would not pressure either country to develop its own capability but inform them we would no longer object. This dramatic change would surprise the DPRK and force them to rethink their strategic calculus, were they to no longer certain they could intimidate through continued nuclear blackmail. The U.S. should not press either Seoul or Tokyo to make any decision as this is very controversial in both countries and may not garner much domestic support at present. Merely lifting our objection would be enough, as well as reassuring both that will still be protected by the American nuclear umbrella, regardless of their decision. Lastly the United States could either choose to explicitly reintroduce its tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea or adopt a policy of ambiguity regarding their presence on Korean soil.
The seemingly dramatic nature of this policy is precisely its greatest strength. For years, North Korea has bullied its neighbors and sought and received concessions without fulfilling its obligations. With the U.S. heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran’s continuing nuclear program, Pyongyang is wagering that the United States is both unable and unwilling to seriously deal with it and would now, more than ever, prefer a diplomatic solution ripe for exploitation by the North Koreans. In addition to forcing North Korea to radically rethink its policies, the prospect of a nuclear South Korea or Japan would put enormous pressure on China and Russia, the DPRK’s principle supporters, to finally put decisive pressure on Pyongyang. Assuming, the ROK and Japan still did not develop their own nuclear deterrent, their infrastructure and advanced knowledge still gives them the ability to very quickly build and test their own weapons. Even this virtual deterrent, not to mention an actual one, would alter the balance of power in Asia not only against North Korea but against China and Russia as well. In the future, if the North were unable to extract concessions from either its neighbors or the US, and in a much worse security situation as a result of its own decision to pursue a nuclear deterrent, it may conclude that its own program is not worth the risks and costs. Lastly, this may set an example to countries such as Iran that the gains of illicit nuclear weapons will be quickly neutralized by newly nuclear neighbors.
Yet, for its many benefits, the potential nuclearization of South Korea and Japan would have significant consequences regionally and internationally. It would risk fatally undermining the NPT, causing other actors to seriously rethink their commitment to it and related regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Regionally, it could spark a destabilizing arms race in East Asia that could later extend to India and Pakistan as well. Internationally, others actors may determine it is in their supreme interest to withdraw from the NPT due to its ineffectiveness and go nuclear themselves. This would be especially dangerous and destabilizing in the Middle East. It is also difficult to foresee the domestic consequences in South Korea and Japan of this scenario. While U.S. reassurances may mitigate some unrest or anger, it could potentially worsen the image of the United States in the eyes of each population as well as lead them to question both American security guarantees and power if we cannot solve the issue short of simply letting them develop nuclear weapons. Lastly, although it may lead to a critical mass of pressure which would lead the DPRK to disarm, it could have the opposite effect, essentially legitimizing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and perhaps never eliminating it.