Zachary Keck

N. Korea Won’t Cause a Nuclear Domino in Asia (But China Might)

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Zachary Keck

N. Korea Won’t Cause a Nuclear Domino in Asia (But China Might)

If there is a nuclear arms race in Asia, China’s conventional military power will be to blame.

N. Korea Won’t Cause a Nuclear Domino in Asia (But China Might)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal published excerpts from an interview it conducted with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

One article from the interview discusses the dire consequences President Park foresees if North Korea goes through with a fourth nuclear weapons test.

“North Korea would effectively be crossing the Rubicon if they were to conduct another nuclear test,” WSJ quotes Park as saying. President Park has also suggested that the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program could end for good if Pyongyang goes through with its threat to conduct a new kind of nuclear test.

The article goes on to say that President Park also claimed that a fourth nuclear test by North Korea could spark a nuclear arms race in the region, where non-nuclear weapon states decide to acquire a nuclear deterrent in response to Pyongyang’s growing atomic capabilities.

“It would be difficult for us to prevent a nuclear domino from occurring in this area,” were North Korea to conduct another test, Park is quoted as saying.

Park is hardly the first to worry that a new state acquiring a nuclear weapon will have a nuclear domino effect among its neighbors. Indeed, this has been a constant concern in the United States since the dawn of the nuclear era. This concern continues today with many in Washington claiming that Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal would spark a nuclear arms race in the already volatile Middle East.

Nor is Park wrong to emphasize that North Korea conducting another test could be especially problematic for its neighbors. While many attribute North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests entirely to domestic politics, Pyongyang’s interest in continuing with tests is almost certainly due to its desire acquire a nuclear deterrent. The only way to be certain that a state has achieved this status is by conducting actual tests, which is why every nuclear state (very possibly including Israel) has carried out tests.

The next few North Korean nuclear tests will be particularly important because many believe that it is on the verge of being able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to be placed on top of a missile. This will give it the operational nuclear deterrent that it has heretofore lacked. While North Korea will initially still lack the capability to reach the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), it will only be a matter of time before it can achieve this too. As we saw in the Cold War when the Soviet Union acquired the capability to reach the continental United States with nuclear missiles, North Korea’s ability to target the U.S. homeland will complicate extended deterrence.

Still, Park’s warnings about North Korea’s growing capabilities creating a nuclear domino effect in Asia is merely bluster. This view is premised on the argument that states acquire nuclear weapons to deter rival nuclear armed states. This was true in the early nuclear era when non-nuclear states had no reason to believe that their nuclear-armed rivals would not use nuclear weapons against them.

As the nuclear era progressed, however, it became clear that nuclear weapons would not be used in the same manner as other military capabilities would. In the words of many, a taboo against the first use of nuclear weapons took root. This taboo is especially strong when it comes to using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state.

North Korea would be particularly unlikely to break this taboo by launching a nuclear attack against South Korea or Japan. To begin with, it will have an extremely small nuclear arsenal given its financial constraints. Moreover, it will also have little in the way of early warning capabilities. This is important because attacking Seoul or Tokyo with nuclear weapons would almost certainly invite a retaliatory nuclear strike from the U.S. And, given the small size of its nuclear arsenal and its inability to detect incoming U.S. nuclear missiles, its entire nuclear arsenal would be wiped out in a U.S. first strike. At that point, it would be defenseless against a conventional attack aimed at overthrowing the regime, which Washington would have every reason to carry out should Pyongyang break the nuclear taboo.

South Korea and Japan understand all this and therefore would not endure the enormous costs (especially to their international reputations, alliances with the U.S., and relations with China) inherent in acquiring a nuclear weapon. An isolated state like North Korea can endure massive international sanctions. Nations with economies highly integrated in the global economy — such as South Korea and Japan — cannot afford to be cut off from the outside world.  That’s why South Korea is investing in conventional capabilities that would allow it to deal with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Although North Korea is unlikely to precipitate a nuclear arms race in Asia, China’s growing military capabilities and assertive diplomatic posture very well might. Indeed, just as history has demonstrated that states don’t need nuclear arsenals to deter rivals from attacking them with nuclear weapons, it has also demonstrated that nuclear weapons are extremely effective in deterring conventional military attacks. Thus, states that face rivals with overwhelming conventional military power have a strong incentive to acquire nuclear weapons to negate their rivals’ conventional superiority.

This is especially true if a state fears that its conventionally superior rival covets its territory. A nuclear arsenal cannot always deter low level skirmishes from nuclear and non-nuclear powers. But nuclear weapons are extremely effective at deterring states from challenging core interests, first and foremost territory.

This is deeply troubling given present trends in the Asia-Pacific. Most notably, China’s economic rise is allowing it to amass a conventional military force that Japan, especially with its declining population, will eventually be incapable of matching. China also claims the Senkaku Islands that Japan administers and there’s been evidence that it may ultimately covet the Ryukyu Islands as well.

Thus, if current trends in the Sino-Japanese conventional balance continue, going nuclear will be an increasingly attractive option for Tokyo, particularly if it loses faith in America’s willingness or ability to defend it.