N. Korea’s neighbors rethink nukes
Rising threat, doubts about U.S. reliability spur raging debate in Seoul and Tokyo
As North Korea races to build a weapon that for the first time could threaten U.S. cities, its neighbors are debating whether they need their own nuclear arsenals.
The North’s rapidly advancing capabilities have scrambled military calculations across the region, and doubts are growing that the U.S. will be able to keep the atomic genie in the bottle.
For the first time in recent memory, there is a daily argument raging in South Korea and Japan — sometimes in public, more often in private — about the nuclear option, driven by worry that the U.S. might hesitate to defend the countries if doing so might provoke a missile launched from the North at Los Angeles or Washington.
In South Korea, polls show 60 percent of the population favors building nuclear weapons. And nearly 70 percent want the U.S. to reintroduce
tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield use, which were withdrawn a quartercentury ago.
There is little public support for nuclear arms in Japan, the only nation ever to suffer a nuclear attack, but many experts believe that could reverse quickly if North and South Korea had arsenals.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has campaigned for a military buildup against the threat from the North, and Japan sits on a stockpile of nuclear material that could power an arsenal of 6,000 weapons. Last Sunday, he won a commanding majority in parliamentary elections, fueling his hopes of revising the nation’s pacifist constitution.
This brutal calculus over how to respond to North Korea is taking place in a region where several nations have the material, the technology, the expertise and the money to produce nuclear weapons.
Beyond South Korea and Japan, there is talk in Australia, Myanmar, Taiwan and Vietnam about whether it makes sense to remain nuclear-free if others arm themselves — heightening fears that North Korea could set off a chain reaction in which one nation after another feels threatened and builds the bomb.
Such fears have been raised before, in Asia and elsewhere, without materializing, and the global consensus against the spread of nuclear weapons is arguably stronger than ever.
But North Korea is testing the U.S. nuclear umbrella — its commitment to defend its allies with nuclear weapons if necessary — in a way no nation has in decades. Similar fears of abandonment in the face of the Soviet Union’s growing arsenal helped lead Britain and France to go nuclear in the 1950s.
President Donald Trump, who leaves Friday for a visit to Asia, has intensified these insecurities in the region. During his campaign, he spoke openly of letting Japan and South Korea build nuclear arms even as he argued they should pay more to support U.S. military bases there.
“There is going to be a point at which we just can’t do this anymore,” he told The New York Times in March 2016. Events, he insisted, were pushing both nations toward their own nuclear arsenals anyway.
Trump has not raised that possibility in public since taking office. But he has rattled the region by engaging in bellicose rhetoric against North Korea and dismissing talks as a “waste of time.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saturday, that the threat of nuclear missile attack by North Korea is accelerating, accusing the North of illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear programs and pledging to repel any strike.
In remarks in Seoul with South Korean Defense Minister Song Youngmoo at his side, Mattis said North Korea engages in “outlaw” behavior and that the U.S. will never accept a nuclear North. The Pentagon chief added that regardless of what the North might try, it is overmatched by the firepower and cohesiveness of the decades-old U.S.-South Korean alliance.
In Seoul and Tokyo, many have already concluded that North Korea will keep its nuclear arsenal because the cost of stopping it will be too great — and they are weighing their options.
Long before North Korea detonated its first nuclear device, several of its neighbors secretly explored going nuclear themselves.
Japan briefly considered building a “defensive” nuclear arsenal in the 1960s despite its pacifist constitution. South Korea twice pursued the bomb in the 1970s and 1980s, and twice backed down under U.S. pressure. Even Taiwan ran a covert program before the U.S. shut it down.
Today, there is no question South Korea and Japan have the material and expertise to build a weapon.
All that is stopping them is political sentiment and the risk of international sanctions. Both nations signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but it is unclear how severely other countries would punish two of the world’s largest economies for violating the agreement.
South Korea has 24 nuclear reactors and a huge stockpile of spent fuel from which it can extract plutonium — enough for more than 4,300 bombs, according to a 2015 paper by Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists.
Japan once pledged never to stockpile more nuclear fuel than it can burn off. But it has never completed the necessary recycling and has 10 tons of plutonium stored domestically and an additional 37 tons overseas.
South Korea may be even further along, with a fleet of advanced missiles that carry conventional warheads. In 2004, the government disclosed that its scientists had dabbled in reprocessing and enriching nuclear material without first informing the International Atomic Energy Agency as required by treaty.
“If we decide to stand on our own feet and put our resources together, we can build nuclear weapons in six months,” said Suh Kune-yull, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University. “The question is whether the president has the political will.”