By now it is no secret that North Korea is a serious contender to acquire nuclear arms. In recent years, it has been emboldened to threaten Seoul’s 12 million citizens with submersion in "a sea of fire." Decades ago the first North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung had been dabbling in nuclear research and development, asking first Stalin, then later Soviet leaders, then Mao and the Peoples Republic of China for assistance.
Kim was uniformly turned down and discouraged from pursuit of a nuclear weapon by both of his Communist allies. The Soviets had no wish for a surrogate to be able to match them in quality, if not quantity, of firepower. Maybe Kim could not have threatened Moscow but he certainly could have damaged Vladivostok and other Soviet Pacific port cities. Not that he necessarily would have ever been so overtly hostile to his mentor but in military planning capability always outweighs intent. The presence of nuclear weapons in Kim’s hands was an uncomfortable contingency that Stalin and his successors did not want to confront.
Similarly the Chinese were adamant about a non-nuclear North Korea. Equally with the Soviets the idea of an uncontrollable dictator like Kim Il Sung – and more recently his son and successor Kim Jong Il – having nuclear weapons was extremely uncomfortable for them. China looks down its nose at North Korea, seeing its existence as an historically necessary but troublesome player in the delicate balance of power in Northeast Asia.
Additionally, the Chinese have been concerned about a resurgent Japan. For decades they have protested the gradual rearmament of Japan, and have grudgingly accepted the inevitable. But unlike Americans, Chinese have long memories. They recall not only WW II but the 1895 Sino-Japanese War and previous centuries of invasion and destruction at the hands of the ‘Eastern Pirates,’ one of the few printable terms of reference Chinese use for Japanese. The ultimate Chinese nightmare would be to be surrounded by hostile nuclear states. They already have the Indian nuclear bomb on their southern borders and the Russian arsenal to the north and west. A nuclear Japan would be a severe potential blow to their plans for peaceful expansion of influence in Asia.
Why would Japan go nuclear? And could it? Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. It lives on the cutting edge of research and development and is always quick to purchase any foreign technologies that it thinks could have an immediate application. Japan is also one of the most far-thinking countries in that its industry will purchase technologies that it has no immediate use for but would prefer to own it and keep it out of the hands of possible competitors.
Given this proclivity for the acquisition of advanced technologies, along with a strong desire to checkmate the competition, it follows logically that Japan would not sit still in regard to nuclear technology. Does Japan currently possess an atomic weapon? Unlikely. Does Japan currently have the technology to construct a nuclear weapon, and perhaps have the separate components already built and stored away for contingency purposes? Highly likely.
What China fears, with good reason, is that the threat generated by a thoughtless expansion of North Korea’s nuclear program will force Japan to build a device and adopt a public stance admitting possession of nuclear weapons. After all, from Japan’s point of view, how long can it be expected to endure the arrogant belligerance of Kim Jong Il? Outrageous threats, combined with missile testing, (with Japan in its range) has justifiably rattled Japan into action.
At some point – and that point is growing closer by the minute – North Korea will cross a line that will force Japan into the open with nuclear weapons. That move will be a cataclysmic diplomatic and military tsunami that will engulf East Asia and most of the rest of the world. A conventionally rearmed Japan fits well into the Free World's ledger and for Japan's own self-defense. An openly nuclear Japan would be a serious military competitor and pose a capability threat.
A nuclear Japan would mea that almost immediately South Korea and Taiwan would accelerate and announce their own R&D programs, if not their own weapons. After all, these things are frighteningly simple to manufacture, and all of these countries possess extensive nuclear power generating facilities – and high tech laboratories, and advanced military systems – capable of delivering a nuclear device.
What is the line in the sand that the North Koreans ought not cross? So far the bluff and bluster have been generally accepted by North Korean’s uneasy neighbors. The flagrant missile testing was designed to intimidate raised hackles in Japan and irritated the Chinese. Sales of missile components to rogue countries such as Iraq, Syria and Iran are straining the tolerance of many who fear indiscriminate proliferation of these weapons, particularly into irresponsible hands. But what act might prove to be the breaking point for the Chinese?
In a recent seminar at the Asia Society in New York City, former Ambassador to both the Peoples Republic of China and South Korea James Lilley addressed this issue in response to a question. Outwardly, he said, China continues to support North Korea. But internally, the Chinese leadership is chafing impatiently at continued North Korean intransigence. The Chinese recognize that the utility of North Korea as a counterweight to U.S. presence in the region has nearly lost its value. America does not pose the same threat to the Chinese that they perceived 30 years ago. Economic ties are so extensive with America, Japan and South Korea that China now takes a jaundiced view of North Korean misbehavior and disharmony. "Late in the evening over drinks," Lilley recounts, "tough, old Chinese generals say that the North Koreas are pushing the limits." If the North Koreans test a nuclear device, Lilley says, the Chinese generals say that they would "take appropriate action."
We may have seen the suggestion of such an action two months ago when a still unexplained explosion devastated a North Korean village near the Chinese border. Kim Jong Il’s private train had passed through the junction just hours before. And reports that later emerged from the scene recounted soldiers and workers in full bio-chemical protective garb removing bodies reported to be Syrians from the wreckage. When international workers arrived, the immediate area had been sterilized.
It would not require much imagination to think of this as a Chinese warning shot across North Korea’s bow. This week, North Korean Peoples Armed Forces Minister Kim Il Chol takes a delegation to China to confer with his counterpart minister. This follows on the heels of a Condoleezza Rice visit to Beijing last week. While the North Korean trip is ostensibly to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of a mutual treaty of friendship, the timing could be right for an unfriendly message to the North Koreans: cease and desist with your WMD program or risk the consequences.