Although these are welcome developments in U.S. bilateral relations with ASEAN nations, a persistent concern remains that a major event will impart a systematic shock to America’s partnerships with these regional players, driving these relations downward toward their historical mean. With relations so good, on average they will tend to worsen without continued efforts to keep ties strong.
A war in Korea might inflict such a blow. North Korea has now detonated three nuclear explosive devices already and is striving to make small nuclear warheads that can be launched on the DPRK’s improving ballistic missiles. Although the DPRK presently lacks missiles capable of reaching North America, it already possesses many missiles that can attack targets in Japan, including the U.S. forces based there. Thanks to its continued testing of long-range rockets, experts calculate that the DPRK could have an intercontinental ballistic with sufficient range to hit targets in North America within five years or less.
The Obama administration achieved remarkable success in securing international sanctions against North Korea for its proliferation activities, but recent UN reports indicate that the sanctions are not being applied effectively, with some Chinese nongovernmental entities working to circumvent them. Most importantly, the United States has made no progress in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal or engaging with the DPRK.
The Obama administration has been willing to negotiate nuclear and other issues directly with the DPRK, within the Six-Party framework, but since Pyongyang has continued its intransigence, most recently by launching a long-range missile in December and now threatening a third nuclear weapons test, the United States and its allies have shunned the DPRK diplomatically and punished it with additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions.
Under its policy of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration has demanded that the DPRK give some concrete indication that it will make major nuclear concessions. But this policy of patiently waiting for verifiable changes in DPRK policies entails several risks. First, it provides North Koreans with additional breathing room to refine their nuclear and missile programs. Second, the DPRK might launch even more ballistic missiles or detonate additional nuclear devices to confirm and support this development process, or may do so simply out of frustration over being ignored. Finally, the strategy of waiting for the DPRK to introduce major reforms risks allowing a minor incident to escalate if the ROK’s implements its post-2010 proactive deterrence policy of retaliating swiftly and vigorously to any DPRK provocation.
Whether Park Geun-Hye, the new ROK president, will remain as firmly supportive of U.S. nonproliferation goals as President Lee remains uncertain given her desire to distance herself from her predecessor as well as initiate an outreach effort toward Pyongyang’s new leadership, which has shown a willingness to experiment with new domestic if not foreign policies.
Iran looks to remain another enduring nonproliferation problem for the new Obama administration. The United States and its allies have found themselves in a challenging position regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Economic sanctions have thus far failed to induce Tehran to renounce plans to enrich large quantities of uranium, potentially suitable for manufacturing nuclear weapons (at a higher level of enrichment). Yet, the United States and other Asian leaders recognize that using military force in an attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear program could easily fail and possibly backfire.