In condemning the North Korean nuclear test and repeating its call for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, one of the Bush administration’s first acts ironically has been to reaffirm the importance of nuclear weapons in the region.
“The United States will meet the full range of our deterrent and security commitments,” President Bush told Japan and South Korea after last week’s test. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strongly hinted that the commitments potentially include nuclear strikes against North Korea.
But is it helpful or counterproductive at this stage to threaten North Korea with nuclear weapons?
At first, the pledge did not quite reassure the Japanese government. “I believe it is important to have various discussions on it [possessing nuclear weapons],” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told a parliamentary foreign affairs panel Wednesday. “The reality is that it is only Japan that has not discussed possessing nuclear weapons, and all other countries have been discussing it,” he said. Aso’s remarks followed a statement made by ruling LPD party Policy Research Council chairman Shoichi Nakagawa on Sunday that discussion about being a nuclear power are ok.
Both Aso and Nakagawa emphasized that they were not advocating that Japan actually builds nuclear weapons, only that it is ok to discuss the issue. But that discussion “is already finished,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said later, insisting that his newly formed cabinet is not split on the nuclear issue.
It was in this political setting that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tokyo Wednesday to underscore, among other matters, President Bush’s pledge. Stopping short of using the n-word, Rice said that “the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range – and I underscore full range – of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.” (Emphasis added.)
“Umbrella” sounds so passive. What it really means is that the United States is maintaining nuclear forces and war plans ready and capable of striking North Korea on moment’s notice. The Pentagon has even drawn up a new war plan (CONPLAN 8022) to be able to strike fast, even preemptively, if countries like North Korea do anything stupid.
Notwithstanding North Korea’s unacceptable nuclear activities, one has to ask whether rattling the nuclear sword over North Korea once more is really going to advance the efforts to denuclearize of the Korean Peninsula. Shouldn’t everything Pyongyang has done during the last decade tell us that the regime thrives on threats and that without them it would be nothing? Publicly reaffirming the nuclear umbrella will likely deepen North Korea’s nuclear quest and confirm that it is right – in its assessment – to develop nuclear weapons.
Let’s think through the scenario that Rice has just offered: North Korea attacks Japan with nuclear weapons; Japan and the United States invoke the commitments of the 1960 Mutual Defense Treaty; the United States retaliates with nuclear weapons against North Korea. Deterring North Korea – if it can be done – means presenting a credible response plan. And the commitments are, hopefully, about being credible. Yet it’s hard to see nuclear retaliation by the world’s most powerful conventional military power against the world’s most embattled regime as anything but punishment. A single nuclear detonation over North Korea would seem pointless and almost certainly trigger and all-out North Korean attack against South Korea. Using dozens of nuclear weapons to swiftly destroy North Korea’s offensive capabilities would be seen as highly disproportionate, not to mention blanket allied countries with radioactive fallout.
Even if the nuclear weapons are not used – which some say is their main mission, reaffirming their role and prominence means continuing down the track of maintaining credible nuclear forces and war plans that may have been important factors in Pyongyang’s decision to develop nuclear weapons in the first place.
Fifteen years after the United States unilaterally withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea and offloaded them from surface ships and attack submarines, Rice should be trying to convince Japan and North Korea that U.S. conventional forces are now so advanced that they can more credibly serve their security interests, rather than reaffirming the role of nuclear weapons in the region. Unlike nuclear weapons, conventional forces at least are credible to the extent that they could be used and serve real military and political objectives in the region.
Raising the nuclear element now seems like nuclear policy on autopilot that takes the process a step back and deeper into the quicksand. A forward-looking policy needs to lessen – not perpetuate – the nuclear menace.