Commentary / Japan

Beginning of the end to the 1953 regime?

by Kuni Miyake

I am neither a prophet nor a fortune teller in international relations. Nonetheless, I just cannot but feel something ominous about the future of Northeast Asia. Has the U.S.-North Korea summit on June 12 in Singapore reinforced stability on the Korean Peninsula or undermined it?

The stability I am talking about is the one created by the Korean War armistice agreement signed on July 27, 1953. The historic document was signed 65 years ago by the commanders representing the United Nations Command Korea, the North Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army.

The framework that I call the “Regime of 1953” has greatly contributed to peace and stability not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in Northeast Asia as a whole. Without the armistice, there would have been no postwar economic recovery in Japan, no miracle on the Han River in South Korea and, of course, no open-door policy in China.

Pundits in Tokyo and elsewhere seem to have forgotten the history. They just focus on short-term, technical or less strategic issues. Some argue, for example, about the meaning and feasibility of the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” which has never been officially defined by any of the parties concerned.

Others claim that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is aware that “complete denuclearization” means the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization — or CVID — of North Korean weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons as well as short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Is that really so? Where is that written on paper?

For me, such arguments do not matter. I am much more interested in the medium- and long-term impact that the June 12 U.S.-North Korea summit may have on stability in East Asia.

My take on this issue is simple. The summit might have started transforming the very nature of the Regime of 1953, whether we like it or not.

As I stated in this column last week, the outcome of the U.S.-North Korea summit reflected two unpleasant but undeniable truths surrounding the Korean Peninsula. First, North Korea doesn’t seem ready to give up its nuclear weapons and, second, there are probably no viable military options to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

Now that U.S. President Donald Trump met and praised Kim as “a smart guy,” the North Korean leader enjoys unprecedented international recognition as well as security guarantee from the United States. Thus, a second Korean war is becoming more and more unlikely and this could eventually undermine the value of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

In addition, Kim will probably continue to meet with other top leaders of Russia, European Union member states and, eventually, Japan. By doing so, Kim could effectively weaken the U.N. sanctions against his regime to an extent that he finds no reasons to give up his nukes in a way that Trump might have preferred.

Moreover, these could lead to more serious ramifications. That is, a possibility for Trump to subtly but quite steadily start damaging, if not destroying, the very foundation of the Regime of 1953, which has contributed immensely to the political stability and economic prosperity of Northeast Asia in its entirety.

If and once this ever starts happening, it will be very difficult for anybody to stop it. In a sense, it is like a sand castle on a beach at high tide or a brick building with a damaged foundation. In either case, the Regime of 1953 will most likely cease to play its historic role as an effective guarantor of regional stability.

This might eventually require Tokyo to seriously reconsider its security policy. Unless North Korea were to abandon its nuclear arsenal while a military remedy is more and more unlikely on the Korean Peninsula, that would be the day Tokyo finally awakens from its long dream of utopian pacifism. The following scenarios might then happen.

1. Tokyo would face a decoupling of America’s strategic nuclear forces.

Western Europe in the 1980s faced the serious issue of decoupling when the Soviet Union started deploying SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The key question at that time was whether the United States was ready to risk New York City or Washington to protect its allies in Bonn or Brussels.

If North Korea does not abandon its short- or medium-range nuclear missiles soon, the same kind of question will arise in Northeast Asia. While the bad news is that there is no clear answer to that question, the good news is that what Tokyo would face is nothing more than the problem that Europe has experienced since the 1980s.

2. Tokyo might reconsider its three non-nuclear principles.

If North Korea does not give up its nuclear arsenal, some in Tokyo might be worried that the current U.S. nuclear umbrella may not suffice. In that case, Tokyo may have to review its three non-nuclear principles of non-possession, non-production, and non-introduction of nuclear weapons in Japan.

The key question then would be whether America’s extended deterrence should or could be reinforced by changing those “three” principles to “2.5” or even two — by allowing nuclear-armed U.S. naval vessels to visit Japanese ports or even deploying, for example, U.S. tactical nuclear missiles on Japanese soil.

3. Japan would not go nuclear even if it wanted too.

Given the special national sentiment vis-a-vis anything atomic and particularly nuclear weapons, Tokyo would find it almost impossible to go nuclear for good military, political and economic reasons.

First, the idea of arming Japan with nukes would not be popular and, therefore, be politically unfeasible. Second, nuclear weapons placed on such a small archipelago with shallow strategic depth would be militarily quite vulnerable.

Third, Tokyo would find the idea of going nuclear so costly that no prime minister could convince the public to bear the burden of the additional defense spending. Finally, Japan would have to give up its status of being the only nation to fall victim to atomic bombs in the history of mankind.

All in all, Tokyo would have to cope with the beginning of the end of the Regime of 1953 without going nuclear, even if it preferred to do so.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.