N. Korea’s neigh­bors re­think nukes

Ris­ing threat, doubts about U.S. re­li­a­bil­ity spur rag­ing de­bate in Seoul and Tokyo

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

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