Seoul is to conclude a big arms deal with Washington to gun up against the background of North Korea’s war preparations. US President Donald Trump has agreed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to revise a joint treaty capping the development of the South's ballistic missiles. Seoul wants to increase the payload on its missiles so it can do more damage. South Korea's development of its ballistic missiles is limited to a range of 800 km (500 miles) and payload weight of 500 kg (1,100 pounds) under a bilateral treaty revised in 2012.
The Trump administration has recently agreed with South Korea that it can deploy missiles with payloads of up to 1,000kg (2,205lb), removing a limit put in place in the hope of drawing North Korea into missile control talks. Seoul will also be given the capacity to use massive, bunker-busting bombs. Faced with North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats, South Korea is seeking to develop a ballistic missile capable of carrying warheads powerful enough to destroy the North Korean regime’s underground military facilities and wartime commands. The Korea Herald reports that according to military sources familiar with the matter, the government is considering a plan to build a new ground-to-ground ballistic missile that can reach the entire North Korea and load up to 2 tons of warheads.
It should be noted that in absence of national means to provide for accurate guidance, the ballistic missiles in question are rather worthless if not nuclear tipped.
Seoul mulls returning US nuclear weapons on its oil. On September 4, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo noted that he talked to US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about placing American nuclear weapons in the country for the first time in over 25 years. He also said South Korea wants «strategic assets» like US aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and B-52 bombers to deploy to the peninsula more frequently, though not to be permanently housed there. It’s noteworthy that the issue has become part of the agenda. The US had around 100 nuclear weapons in the country until 1991. On September 4, South Korea’s conservative opposition group, the Liberty Korea Party, issued a statement favoring the deployment of American tactical nuclear weapons in the country.
Seoul also mulls going nuclear. South Korean media call for acquisition of its own nuclear potential. Almost 60% of South Koreans support starting a nuclear weapons program, according to a poll in September 2016. The largest support is found among residents age 60 and above. Won Yoo-cheol, parliamentary floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, has told the National Assembly: «We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor every time it rains. We need to have a raincoat and wear it ourselves». During the election campaign, Donald Trump speculated that perhaps South Korea and Japan should acquire their own nuclear weapons.
The voices calling for national nuclear capability are heard in the US as well as in Japan. US President Trump has already positively raised the idea of a Japanese nuclear deterrent. Douglas «Doug» Bandow, an American political writer, currently working as a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, believes that «South Korea and Japan are important international partners, but their protection is not worth creating an unnecessary existential threat to the American homeland. Better to create a balance of power in which the US is not a target if nukes start falling. And that would be achieved by independent South Korean and Japanese nuclear deterrents».
Anders Corr, an international security expert who head Corr Analytics Company, calls for Japan going nuclear. «A stronger Japan will check China’s expansion and free US military resources for deployment elsewhere», he writes.
Robert Robb of the Arizona Republic, thinks that «South Korea and Japan having nuclear weapons would obviously change the balance of power regarding North Korea. North Korea would be highly unlikely to fire a missile over a nuclear-armed Japan. And a nuclear-armed Japan would be less likely to take such a provocation passively». «The United States should be in the business of encouraging other industrial democracies to provide for their own security», he adds.
Some American defense experts have already done assessments of what exactly a Japan’s nuclear arsenal should be like.
According to Reuters, Japan looks for a quick, resolute response to North Korea’s growing missile threat, some defense policy makers in Tokyo say it may be time to reconsider non-nuclear pledges and invite US nuclear weapons to be stationed on its soil. «Perhaps it’s time for our three principles to become two», a senior defense policy maker told the agency, suggesting nuclear weapons be allowed into Japan. He asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue». The three principles, formally adopted in 1971, state that Japan shall neither possess nor produce nuclear weapons, nor permit their introduction into Japanese territory.
A discussion on the prospects for national nuclear capability has been launched. «Although anti-nuclear weapons sentiment is extremely strong in Japan, now people are more freely discussing the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan», said Masako Toki of the Center for Non-proliferation Studies, «Before now, even slightly saying such an idea forced politicians to resign. Now that seems no longer the case. The taboo on discussing de-nuclearization has been weakened». Anders Corr says he has also «seen an increased number of military analysts supporting a nuclear armed Japan over the past few months».
Last year, the government of Shinzo Abe stated that there is nothing in the nation’s Constitution that explicitly forbids Japan from using nuclear weapons. Yusuke Yokobatake, the Director-General of the Japanese Cabinet Legislation Bureau, said last year, «We don't think that the use of all kinds of nuclear weapons is prohibited under the Constitution».
The very fact that the problem of North Korea is used for launching discussions of the possibility of South Korea and Japan hosting US nuclear weapons, or even acquiring the potential of their own, is extremely worrisome. There are a lot of conventional weapons to counter the North Korean threat with but a nuclear deterrent appears to be a great temptation. Measures that might include steps to prevent nuclear weapons being stationed outside the borders of the nuclear-weapon states is not an issue to top the international agenda but it should be.
If South Korea and Japan were to restart its nuclear weapons program, it would mean withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Other countries will follow the example to bury the treaty in force since 1970. There are a lot of nations that have the technological potential to rapidly join the nuclear club. Genie will be out of the bottle to result in uncontrolled nuclear arms race. It will not be limited to Asia-Pacific. If a chain reaction starts, economic sanctions and diplomatic ostracization would not work as preventive measures anymore. All the efforts applied to make the world safer will go down the drain.
The two nations in question cannot go nuclear without US consent. It the worst happens, the United States will be held responsible. Washington should think twice before giving green light to its allies.