Since the end of the Cold War, efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons have focused on states in the Middle East. Work in that region has been largely successful — even in light of recent difficulties with the United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While these diplomatic victories are certainly important, nonproliferation advocates should not yet celebrate. Instead, the eyes of the international community should turn to East Asia in order to ensure nuclear weapons are not further propagated.
It’s easy to look at North Korea and see obvious analogues to WMD-equipped dictatorships elsewhere in the world. But the nuclear situation in East Asia is more nuanced than the actions of a single nation. In actuality, much of the work to be done is with democratic states — most notably South Korea and Japan — which feel continued pressure from regional rivals.
South Korea, for example, has taken steps to expand its array of weapons technologies, with recent submarine-launched ballistic missile tests demonstrating a commitment to self-defense. While there are no indications that this will imminently lead to nuclear development, further pressure from North Korea (combined with an increasing distaste for reliance upon American military aid) could result in a situation in which nuclear weapons seem like the best option.
Pitfalls abound elsewhere in the region. Most notably, Japan’s stockpile of plutonium remains a cause for concern. Although this has been the subject of substantial diplomatic pressure from the United States and others in recent years, the ease by which the material could be utilized for offensive purposes should worry all interested in nonproliferation. Japan must be persuaded that power-generating nuclear processes should not be mixed with those that could conceivably be used for war. The United States, in particular, can terminate their cooperation with Japan on atomic energy generation at any point. While this isn’t a step that should be taken immediately or even in the short-term, further collaboration should be predicated on a verifiable reduction of the stockpile after years of empty promises from the Japanese government.
But beyond just working to address these immediate threats of nuclear weapon development, the United States and other interested members of the international community need to address the root causes of why these nations feel the need to take steps towards disrupting the global nonproliferation regime.
While there are a number of contributing factors, one stands out. Put simply, nuclear weapons beget nuclear weapons. While China’s arsenal remains a threat to the security of others in the region, that nation’s overwhelming conventional strength blunt the incremental impact of nuclear weapons. Instead, North Korea’s nuclear armada looms large both in real terms and in the psyche of its neighbors in East Asia. Polling in South Korea, for instance, has long shown a plurality or majority of the population in favor of nuclear development. With this support in mind, it’s only a matter of time before a political party seizes the nuclear issue to gain power and makes good on its promises. Japan, for its part, has increasingly been the target of North Korean missile overflight — possibly leading to a similar popular groundswell for a nuclear defense.
As North Korea itself shows, disarmament after the fact is nearly impossible, even with substantial pressure from the international community. That’s why work needs to be done now to reassure South Korea, Japan, and others in the region. Engagement with North Korea should accordingly be a priority — if not to demand disarmament then at the very least to attempt a permanent end to testing.
Any progress in this area would be an extraordinary victory. While reducing tensions stemming from testing may not seem like much compared to the ultimate goal of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, it would certainly strike a blow against further proliferation. And, if these efforts prove unsuccessful, then pressure must be put on South Korea and Japan to avoid nuclear development. Failure could mean a level of danger not seen since the Cold War.