Guns and Butter: How to Prevent a Nuclear Arms Race in Asia

By Albert B. Wolf

During the Cold War, NATO members often questioned the credibility of America’s commitment to their defense from the Soviets, asking whether Washington would really be willing to sacrifice Chicago for the good of Paris and Bonn. In the face of recent North Korean threats to engage in preemptive nuclear strikes as self-defense accompanied by television broadcasts of the (hypothetical) obliteration of New York, the U.S. faces a case of déjà vu as a small number of hard-boiled realists in Japan and South Korea are now calling for their own nuclear weapons, echoing fears of abandonment that were last heard prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Because of North Korea’s songun (military first) policy, some commentators in South Korea have suggested that a nuclear deal with Pyongyang can only be reached if Seoul has a bomb of its own. This raises an obvious security dilemma for the U.S.: could North Korea’s belligerence be the tipping point for a cascade of nuclear proliferation in East Asia?   

Arms races—both conventional and unconventional—carry with them a host of unwelcome threats that leave something to chance, from the potential for unnecessarily exacerbating tensions among wary neighbors to the possibility that  an organizational snafu will lead to an environmental catastrophe we will be left reeling from for decades. Despite these threats, the U.S. can prevent nuclear dominoes from tipping over in the region even if North Korea continues to insist on its grand strategy of guns-over-butter.

First, the U.S. should publicly and unequivocally reaffirm its security commitments to both Japan and South Korea. America’s nuclear umbrella has played a key role in preventing nuclear outbreaks in the region in decades past. Chairman Mao frequently bragged that he was willing to lose more than half of the population of China in order to prevail in a nuclear conflict. Even Nikita Khruschev, no stranger himself to verbal brinksmanship, worried that Mao’s belligerence would lead to an actual world war. Despite these threats, America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea ameliorated their fears and removed their rationales for moving ahead with nuclear deterrents of their own. In order for such a strategy to be successful today, it is necessary that both senior officials in the Obama Administration, starting with Secretaries Hagel and Kerry, as well as senior Congressional Republicans, reiterate the specifics of the American guarantees to the region.

North Korea’s recent nuclear belligerence is likely to bolster the political fortunes of nationalists on the right in Japan and South Korea. In addition to forcing their respective governments to committing to their own nuclear programs, such groups may force their governments to commit to harder-line stances that forego the use of positive inducements vis-à-vis Pyongang. South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, is not only confronting resistance from parliament in confirming her Defense Minister, but is facing the possibility that her plans for resuming shipments of food aid will be scuttled by North Korea’s most recent nuclear test.  Nationalism was one of the main causes behind last autumn’s flare-up over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands between China and Japan. (Lest we forget, Shinzo Abe’s previous lackluster term as prime minister was marked by a series of incidents establishing his patriotic bona fides, including a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.)

The U.S. should couple the carrot of extended deterrence to its East Asian partners with the stick of economic sanctions for proliferators. While many have been quick to point out that sanctions have been ineffective in curbing North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear appetites, these pundits forget that sanctions are most likely to be used against states’ adversaries but are the most effective when used against their allies.

For states pursuing protectionism (like Iran and North Korea), sanctions are little more than an additional bulwark against an increasingly competitive world economy. However, for trading states like Japan and South Korea, access to and participation in the globalized economy has been critical to their success. The prospect of sanctions would serve as an important reminder that theeconomic fallout from the pursuit of their own nuclear arsenals would quickly complicate their ongoing efforts to recover from the global recession.

While there is growing skepticism over the potential for denuclearizing North Korea, nuclear proliferation across Asia will only happen if the U.S. fails to reassure its allies and be willing to resort to economic statecraft.



Albert B. Wolf is a researcher and doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of California, Irvine.

[Photo courtesty of Shutterstock.]

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