By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
Last month during a visit to Beijing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the possibility of allowing Japan to acquire nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s progress toward developing a nuclear weapons arsenal with ballistic missiles.
If implemented, Tillerson’s remark would signal a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy because we have been the champion of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) since it came into force in 1970.
The purpose of the NPT is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and associated technology beyond the countries that already have nuclear weapons. The treaty also aims to work toward total nuclear disarmament. As of 2016, 191 nations signed the NPT and adhere to it.
Only One Country Is Openly Pursuing a Nuclear Weapons Capability – North Korea
Fewer than 10 countries have nuclear weapons. Much of the world would prefer to keep it that way. However, there is at least one country that is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon capability with associated delivery systems, North Korea.
North Korea originally signed the NPT but withdrew from the pact in 2003. Since then, it has detonated several nuclear weapons in various tests in violation of many United Nations resolutions.
Over the decades direct negotiations with the North Korean regime proved fruitless as Pyongyang acquired a nuclear weapon capability. It is now working hard to develop a ballistic missile capability that can deliver its nuclear weapons.
China Is the Only Country that Has Any Leverage over North Korea
It is well-known that China is the only country that has any leverage over the North Korean leadership because Beijing provides North Korea with much needed fuel and food on a daily basis.
The Chinese leadership finally agrees with the rest of the world that North Korea must end its efforts to develop an operational nuclear weapons arsenal. But Beijing has done little to actually make that happen. Certainly the threat of a nuclear armed Japan and South Korea on its borders is something Chinese leaders absolutely do not want; it is something of a red line for them.
As such, the Trump administration has decided to play hardball with the Chinese by supporting Japan’s and South Korea’s interest in defending themselves against the North Korean nuclear threat. Estimates are it would take either country less than a year to develop a functioning nuclear weapon. So, Trump’s threat is very real.
A nuclear armed Japan and South Korea, however, could mean that the end of the NPT. At that point, other nations might want to acquire nuclear weapons, especially if the United States becomes more isolationist.
Even if Japan and South Korea were given the green light to develop nuclear weapons, the problem becomes testing them because the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty bans all nuclear detonations anywhere. It was adopted by the United Nations in 1996, but officially is not in effect because eight nations have not ratified it.
No Nuclear Detonations Anywhere Since 1996, Except Underground in North Korea
As of 2016, the U.S., China, Israel, Egypt, Iran, India, Pakistan, and of course, North Korea have not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. On the positive side, 166 other nations have ratified the test ban, and almost all nations are abiding by it. As a result, there have been no nuclear detonations anywhere in the world since 1996, except underground in North Korea.
The U.S. could offer to sell Japan and South Korea air-launched cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. The nuclear-armed AGM-86B weighs more than 3,000 pounds, is just over 20 feet long, carries a W80 thermonuclear weapon, and can fly more than 1,500 miles. It uses a terrain contour-matching guidance system that prevents it from being easily detected or tracked.
The AGM-86B is tested and proven effective and is operational in the U.S. Air Force inventory. To deliver the AGM-86B, Japanese and South Korean F-15s would have to be reconfigured.
If this were to happen, then the international focus would become Iran. At that point, with the NPT invalidated and two countries being sold nuclear weapons capability, Iran would want out of its Obama administration orchestrated agreement with the U.S. and its allies so Tehran could develop its own nuclear weapons.
Israel would then perceive Iran as an existential threat and feel compelled to launch a first strike at some point.
It would appear that the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea is not well thought out. That course of action could easily lead to a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia as well as in the Middle East.
Given the instability of the North Korean leadership, primarily Kim, Jong-un, and Iran’s fanatic support for Shia terrorist groups, the probability of a nuclear weapon exchange somewhere in the world would increase exponentially.
When negotiating, it is good to bluff at times. I hope China does not call our bluff as it could lead to a dark era in mankind’s history.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.