The upside to a nuclear Japan?
Reality has always been that disarmament is fine as long as it’s the other guy who does it. Confirming this, Brazil’s vice president recently advocated his country’s development of nuclear weapons to “deter aggression” and gain “greater respectability” – while India announced that it has built high-yield nuclear weapons. But these developments are not nearly as disturbing as what’s going on in despotic North Korea – now a nuclear-weapons power that loves to threaten war. From Japan is a pronounced turn to the right in national politics and a near-term promise of a more robust Japanese foreign and national security policy. In this context – and a few weeks before the last Japanese national election – the top U.S. general in Japan told the Tokyo Press Club that Japan didn’t need its own deterrent to address the growing nuclear threat from North Korea. Since then, of course, North Korea has admitted that it was in the “completion stage” of enriching uranium – the process needed for larger-scale nuclear weapons production. Did the U.S. general’s comment and the continuation of threats from North Korea – all widely reported – influence the elections in Japan? Probably. The top U.S. general’s naive statement certainly would have helped persuade the Chinese and the Russians that there was no need to take more aggressive positions against the North Korean nuclear-weapon and missile-development programs. Not only that, Bill Clinton’s recent, extorted visit to North Korea (like Jimmy Carter’s in 1994) is but the latest in a long line of failed U.S. approaches toward North Korea that have only encouraged its increasingly dangerous and belligerent behavior. Here is a review of the current policy dynamics that play into getting North Korea under some form of rational international control:
First, what won’t work: the U.S. administration’s agreement to bilateral talks with North Korea as a prelude to a resumption of the failed Six-Party Talks only rewards North Korea’s past bad behavior and encourages more of it. It seems only a sad repeat of similar North Korean scams run against the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Bilateral discussions with the Japanese, Russians and Chinese are the best diplomatic approaches – provided our secretaries of state and defense engage personally with their counterparts. Even more care and attention need be taken with the Japanese government, which offers the real key to the North Korean “nuclear problem.” More on this later.
This part of the equation is by far the easiest to address: The U.S. has the necessary regional and strategic forces to put the entire country of North Korea – and especially the leadership, nuclear-weapon and missile-development infrastructure – at risk at a moment’s notice. Because the North Koreans have such a long history of irrational military behavior, we must be ready to defend our interests and those of our allies should the situation require it – and it could at any time.
Our longer-term goal should be a robust, regional strategic partnership with the Japanese – one that realistically envisions Japan emerging as a responsible regional nuclear power.
Who could be expected to oppose this?
Certainly – and primarily – the Chinese, who see themselves as the dominant regional power and an emerging superpower, would use their influence to prevent the alliance. However, it is also the Chinese who are able to exert the most powerful political and economic forces on the North Koreans to modify their behavior in a believable and sustainable way. And, until the real prospect of a U.S.-Japanese strategic alliance presents itself, the Chinese simply won’t have the incentive to “solve the problem” with the North Koreans.
The Russians also could oppose the new alliance, for reasons similar – but not quite the same – as the Chinese. For the Russians, the idea of a NATO-like organization with Japan could evoke traditional Russian phobias of “encirclement,” a Cold War ploy. But, likewise, it is the Russians who should intervene aggressively with the North Koreans – and the ball can be put squarely in their court with the idea of a regional Japanese nuclear deterrent.
Notwithstanding U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement that “the international community failed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons,” the blame lies squarely with the current and last three U.S. administrations. Not only have we failed to deflect North Korea away from becoming a nuclear menace, we continue to encourage and incentivize its international extortion.
China and Russia are the only powers capable of influencing North Korean behavior in the shorter term. For the longer term, however, the North Koreans must learn that the idea of nuclear deterrence applies to them as well. That concept is most effectively demonstrated by a new regional strategic alliance – one with a Japanese nuclear component – between the U.S. and Japan.
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Nuclear and Space Talks with the former Soviet Union and served as a senior staffer at the Departments of Defense and Justice and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.