North Korea’s nuclear test, which caused indignation and alarm around the world, is good news for the United States for seven reasons:
1. It places China in the uncomfortable position of condemning Kim Jong Il verbally, but continuing to uphold his regime politically and economically.
2. It therefore presents perfect justification for the United States to condone and even encourage Japan’s rapid and large-scale rearmament, up to and possibly including the acquisition of nuclear arms.
3. It may deflect China’s pressure on Taiwan, thus facilitating the extension of a stable status quo that is in the interest of the United States.
4. It increases America’s regional leverage at no cost and little risk to Washington.
5. It provides a strong argument for the United States to exert pressure on South Korea to increase its defense spending and to expand its military capabilities.
6. It gives a timely reminder that the withdrawal of all American forces from the Korean peninsula is long overdue.
7. It generally complicates the situation in northeast Asia for the key Oriental “tigers” (China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), all four of which are America’s economic competitors, and one (China) a potential global rival.
As per 1, China’s objective of long standing has been to be accepted as a dependable great power, a “responsible stakeholder.” As such it is supposed to resist nuclear proliferation in general, and expected to prevent it in the case of a client as unpredictable, paranoid, and universally disliked as Kim Jong Il. But while China has warned Kim on numerous occasions over the past few years against his nuclear program, and Peking condemned his latest exploit as “brazen,” the People’s Republic does not want multilateral sanctions against North Korea and cannot afford to risk Kim’s survival.
For ideological reasons Peking would be loath to see the downfall of a fellow-Communist government (the only other two being a not-too-friendly Vietnam to the south and an irrelevant basket-case Cuba on the other side of the world). The cost to China of saving that regime with the lives of two hundred thousand “People’s Volunteers” in 1950-51 still resonates among the CP cadres. Old loyalties apart, letting Kim slide could bring millions of unwanted, starving Nort Korean refugees across the Yalu into Manchuria. Furthermore, China prefers to have North Korea as a buffer between herself and the U.S.-patrolled South Korean border on the 38th parallel (the misnamed “DMZ”). She therefore resists the imposition of sanctions and continues to supply North Korea with energy and foodstuffs without which this impoverished and starving Stalinist hell-on-Earth would either collapse or become even more unpredictable than it is now. It’s a classic no-win situation in which China will either lose face, or influence and power, and may end up losing some of both.
As per 2, the discrepancy between Japan’s economic might and her relative military insignificance is an anomaly harking back to 1945 that could hardly be justified even before the North Korean nuclear test, and which is now unsustainable. Japan has reached the point where economic power can no longer be a workable substitute for the non-existant defense force of a million soldiers—commensurate with a country of 130 million—or for a decent military budget that should account for at least 3 percent of the GDP, instead of that miserly one percent in 2005.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took his post two weeks ago, is routinely described as a “nationalist” by the Western media, which means that he is a decent sort. (You call me “nationalistic,” he told a journalist last year, “but I say that the person who is not patriotic cannot be the leader of his country.”) He has been in favor of developing a stronger and more assertive military for years, and now it is time for the U.S. to let him get on with it. Abe could start with changing the obsolete MacArthur Constitution of 1947. If he ends with an independent Japanese nuclear deterrent the United States should not stand in his way. That would help keep Kim in check and at the same time it would concentrate a few minds in Peking wonderfully—especially among those who have sought to transform China’s growing economic power into the position of a regional hegemon. That tendency inevitably has the potential to place America on the collision course with China. Other countries should be allowed, encouraged even, to help curtail such ambitions; and China’s little Catch 22 with Kim Jong Il provides them with a perfect opportunity.
China will complain if Japan rearms, of course, and she will scream blue murder if there is a nuclear test in northern Hokkaido but in view of Peking’s evident inability to keep Kim under control the United States will be justified to reply that it America no intention to fight a nuclear war in defense of a threatened foreign power and that therefore she has no right to prevent that foreign power from providing for her own defense. Comrade Kim’s nuclear test provides the opportunity for Uncle Sam to justify doing what needed to be done anyway.
In addition the United States should withdraw all American troops from the Korean Peninsula rather than keep them as a tripwire that shouldn’t do any tripping and therefore should not be kept in harm’s way. But getting Seoul to upgrade its military capabilities may entail some arm twisting, as many South Koreans still hope that appeasing Kim can work and that the American defense shield—maintained ever since the signing of the 1953 Mutual Defence Treaty—may be kept indefinitely. The policy of American constructive disengagement from the Korean Peninsula should include a green light to the South to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Hardly any American technical would be needed: South Korea has a strong civilian nuclear program with a host of dual-use elements already in place, a sophisticated infrastructure, and technical capabilities that may produce a credible deterrent as soon as the end of 2007.
If China and North Korea have nuclear weapons, and Japan and South Korea develop them in order to establish and maintain regional balance comparable to that in the Indian Subcontinent (i.e. devoid of an American security guarantee to any potentially warring party), Taiwan would complain that it should not be the only key regional player prevented from joining the club to which it has long aspired. The limits of China’s endurance could be dangerously close by that point, however, and the United States would be well advised to offer a simple and attractive deal to Peking: we’ll make sure that Taiwan does not get the bomb—and for good measure we’ll discourage any high-profile move towards independence in Taipei—if you are willing to take the issue of reunification off the table, and keep it so for, say, ten years. That would be an offer that an overstretched China with so many fresh headaches in her back yard could ill afford to refuse.
Thank you, Comrade Kim . . .
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