Commentary / Japan

Japan's least bad choice on North Korea

by Ramesh Thakur

If Japanese officials have conducted any clear-eyed, hard-headed analysis of the government’s policy options on North Korea’s nuclear challenge, they have managed to keep it well hidden.

When India tested a nuclear bomb in 1998 (followed immediately by Pakistan), a range of sanctions were imposed, including by Japan. In the following months I was asked more about that by Japanese shocked by the betrayal of the anti-nuclear cause than anything else about India. Yet in 2005 India was back in good standing as a de facto nuclear-armed state with a special exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (established in reaction to India’s 1974 test in the first place) and a bilateral nuclear deal with the United States. By now bilateral deals have been concluded with many other countries, including Australia, Canada and Japan.

In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” we have this wonderful sentence: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean.'” The whistle to signal imminent departure by North Korea’s proliferation train was blown in 2003 with its defection from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The train left Pyongyang Central in 2006 with North Korea’s first nuclear test. The U.S. strategy seems to be to make sure the 2017 sixth test, and no reliable ICBM capability, is the terminus.

This is why U.S. President Donald Trump seems unperturbed by the series of short-range missile tests over the past several weeks, with the latest one taking place Wednesday, much to Japan’s consternation. The consensus of American analysts seems to be that Trump is “satisfied with the status quo.”

Japan still seems determined to return the train to its nuclear-free point of origin. Is this a policy based in realism or delusion? Tokyo is ferociously insistent on dealing with Pyongyang through the nonproliferation lens. But the objective reality is that North Korea is no longer pursuing the nuclear option; it already is a nuclear-armed state. It’s hard to see that, absent global abolition of nuclear arms for which Japan’s enthusiasm is questionable, a policy of “cap, roll back and eliminate” its nuclear weapons capability will be any more successful than the earlier, futile efforts against India and Pakistan.

Accepting the status quo of a nuclear-armed North Korean regime with medium-range delivery capability may well be the worst option, except for all the others, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s bon mot on democracy.

The Kim family has ruled North Korea since 1948. Over the past 71 years, three generations of Kims have seen off 13 U.S. presidents. Kim Jong Un has every expectation of being in power long after Trump has faded from memory. He can afford patience as strategy.

No country today has the wherewithal to avoid total devastation if attacked by the U.S. But potential targets of U.S. regime change can make sure Washington understands the price Americans will have to pay, and have the means to raise the price higher than any conceivable gains. Viewed in these terms, an assured retaliatory nuclear capability is a rational choice for Kim. Thus, after the U.S. missile strikes on Syria in April 2017, North Koreans said the attacks had vindicated their nuclear choices “a million times over.”

Against this background, if China and Russia were to abandon North Korea, the regime will become even more reliant on its independent nuclear deterrent.

This why some of us have been bemused by the flurry of speculation on the range of mechanisms to verify and monitor denuclearization by North Korea: A deal that can meet all sides’ bottom lines has not looked imminent at any point in the last two years.

Because North Korea is one of the most isolated, economically depressed countries in the world, additional sanctions would be subject to the law of diminishing returns. It managed to develop a mature and sophisticated missile and nuclear program despite a dozen U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions.

A 2017 study by London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies concluded that even if China were to impose a total oil embargo on exports to North Korea, it would cause economic pain but neither trigger a collapse of the North’s economy, nor compel it to change nuclear behavior.

Meanwhile, the escalating China-U.S. trade war, and the undiminished irritants in relations with Russia, weaken Chinese-Russian willingness to play by U.S. rules in efforts to resolve the Korean issue.

Of course, Tokyo could press Trump to take out the Kim regime by force and destroy its nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The difficulty with this “solution” is that a second Korean War could prove catastrophic with respect to the numbers of people killed, with only a low probability of success in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear assets.

It would also carry high risks of the conflict escalating vertically to WMD use, and horizontally to other countries in North Asia. With North Korea having instituted protective countermeasures to hide its nuclear assets, the U.S. simply does not have the required degree of certainty to identify, locate and destroy all three categories of nuclear targets: warheads, the bomb production infrastructure and delivery vehicles.

A U.S. Congressional Research Service report estimated that between 30,000 and 300,000 people would die in South Korea in the first days of a conventional war. With escalation to nuclear weapons and expansion of the geographical theater of the war, the casualty toll could reach 25 million. Such a costly war can be justified only in retaliation against an unprovoked attack. Hence the focus should be on deterring Pyongyang from starting a war or committing acts of aggression, containing it and constructing defensive shields.

Meanwhile, if tensions are high the risk is real of an accidental war resulting from all parties being caught in an escalating spiral from which escape is difficult. The risks of a nuclear war triggered through an inadvertent or rogue launch, system or human error, or accident are built into in any nuclear deterrence equation. This is why measures to reduce risks and de-escalate tensions are absolutely essential.

A diplomatic road map to resolving the nuclear dilemma is required because a permanently nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable in principle, could trigger a proliferation cascade across the region and contains too many grave risks for the region and the world, but cannot be stopped by military means.

The widening rift between Japan and South Korea on unrelated issues is unfortunate. South Korean President Moon Jae-in could do with Japanese support for his three-pillar policy of “peace first” without any pre-emptive or preventive use of military force, “no nukes” for either the North or the South and “no regime change,” not even unification by absorption of the North on South Korean terms.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.