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Defusing the North Korean crisis

by Michael Richardson

Asia-Pacific allies and security partners of the United States are scrutinizing every move made by Washington as North Korea threatens to strike South Korea and launch missile attacks against American bases in Japan and the Western Pacific.

Surrounded by senior military officers, the North’s mercurial young leader, Kim Jong Un, declared Saturday that his impoverished but nuclear-armed country was “entering the state of war” with South Korea. The day before, he announced that “the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation.”

The bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang may turn out to be just its latest blackmail attempt to try to extract concessions from the U.S. and the international community, following North Korea’s third nuclear weapons test in February and its successful launch in December of a long-range ballistic missile. But the crisis has reignited calls from conservative politicians and analysts in Seoul for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons and for the U.S. to reintroduce tactical nuclear arms into the South to deter North Korean aggression.

If South Korea were to follow the North down the nuclear weapons path, it could set off a chain reaction in Asia, as Japan, Taiwan and perhaps other nonnuclear nations opted for atomic arms to protect themselves. This would undermine the Asia-Pacific network of five bilateral mutual defense treaties that the U.S. has with South Korea, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, none of which has nuclear weapons. Nonnuclear Taiwan is also a de facto ally of the U.S., which is bound by law to help defend the island should it be attacked by China.

The breakdown of confidence in U.S. alliances in the region would also undermine America’s security partnerships with Singapore, several other Southeast Asian nations, and India. It would be profoundly destabilizing as the Asia-Pacific region copes with the rise of China and nationalist forces in a number of countries, especially in Northeast Asia.

The credibility of extended deterrence in America’s mutual defense treaties with South Korea and Japan is vital as North Korea threatens to unleash its long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, even though it is not yet proven that North can do as it now claims and make atomic warheads small enough fit on its ballistic missiles. Nor is it certain that its missiles could hit Guam or Hawaii, let alone the U.S. mainland as Pyongyang has threatened to do.

Still, as North Korea ratchets up its threats, the U.S. must convince allies that it is ready and able to deter attacks on them, and not just by conventional means. The U.S. must also convince its allies that they are protected by America’s nuclear umbrella and that should the North resort to nuclear attack, it would face an overwhelming U.S. response in kind.

Whether the army-backed regime in Pyongyang will be convinced of U.S. resolve is now being tested, more than at any time since the 1950-53 Korean War that led to partition of the Korean peninsula and an uneasy truce. U.S. President Barack Obama has personally assured the South Korean leadership that their country is guaranteed American nuclear protection.

To underscore this commitment, U.S. F-22 stealth fighter-bombers arrived in South Korea on Sunday for joint exercises. The arrival of the jets, the most advanced in the U.S. Air Force, came after the Obama administration’s other recent displays of American air power over South Korea that included B-52 and B-2 bombers. The U.S. sent two B-2 stealth bombers on a practice bombing run in South Korean airspace Thursday as part of a joint training exercise with South Korean forces from March 1 until April 30. The U.S. has 28,500 military personnel in South Korea.

The two B-2 jets made the nearly 10,500 km round trip from an air force base on the U.S. mainland, demonstrating America’s ability to “provide extended deterrence to our allies in the Asia-Pacific region” and to “conduct long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will,” the American command in Seoul said in a statement.

It was the first time that the U.S. military has publicly confirmed a B-2 mission over South Korean territory. The B-2 bomber can carry both nuclear weapons and conventional high-explosive bombs. It has radar-evading capabilities and can skirt air defenses. The B-2 is the only U.S. bomber that can carry the biggest “bunker buster” bomb in America’s arsenal, the 30,000 pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator. The MOP is designed to hit targets buried deep underground, such as North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities. The B-2 is “the strategic weapon most feared by North Korea,” a senior military official told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

With photographs of the bat-winged bombers escorted by jet fighter-bombers over South Korea published in the local media and abroad, the U.S. was clearly seeking to assure South Koreans that it means what it says.

Public opinion polls in South Korea over the last decade have consistently shown majority support for an indigenous nuclear weapons program and the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which Washington withdrew in 1991. In two recent polls, conducted since North Korea’s most recent nuclear test on Feb. 12, 64 percent and 66 percent of those surveyed agreed that South Korea should have its own nuclear arms.

However, the South Korean government is evidently wary of these pro-nuclear views and has not endorsed them. Still, in negotiations with the U.S. over the past 18 months for a new bilateral nuclear trade agreement, South Korean officials have argued for the right to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel for electricity generation.

Both these technologies can be used to make fissile material for nuclear weapons, as well as fuel for nuclear power plants. South Korea has 21 such plants and they generate about 40 percent of its electricity. It wants to reduce its reliance on imported fuel and offer foreign customers for its nuclear reactors assured fuel supplies.

Defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis is Asia’s most pressing security concern at present, one that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will discuss with South Korea, Japan and China when he makes his first visit to Asia this month. A key sign of U.S. success in the face of North Korean belligerence will be whether its Asian allies remain willing to rely on America to protect them from nuclear attack.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.