What the North Korean nuclear test also means
21 Feb 2013|
Nuclear fear

North Korea’s latest nuclear test has been discussed from several angles: the level of technological progress of the regime; if China should and will end its support for its neighbour; and whether tougher sanctions by the international community would have any significant impact on Pyongyang’s nuclear behaviour. Yet, equally significant is the fact that North Korea’s nuclear test is also part of a broader picture: the emergence of nuclear multipolarity in the Asia-Pacific region.

After the Cold War, there were high hopes that the role of nuclear weapons in international politics would diminish. And for a short time, things seemed to be moving in that direction as both the United States and Russia started to reduce the number of their strategic nuclear warheads during the 1990s. But more than 20 years later, Washington and Moscow still retain enough nuclear stockpiles to wipe each other off the map multiple times. France and the United Kingdom show no signs of getting rid of their minimum nuclear deterrent despite their enormous financial costs. And Israel certainly has no intention of dismantling its ‘unofficial’ nuclear arsenal in the face of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Meanwhile, the Asia–Pacific region has been most emblematic for what Harvard scholar Paul Bracken has termed the ‘second nuclear age‘. Apart from the established nuclear powers (US, Russia, China, Great Britain and France), there are new secondary powers that have or are in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club in the late 1990s and have been upgrading their capabilities ever since. Only last week Islamabad test-fired another nuclear capable missile. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program appears to have reached a new level of sophistication. And China is modernising its nuclear arsenal to develop a secure second-strike capability vis-à-vis the US.

It’s important to recognise that Asia’s emerging nuclear multipolarity is at least partly the result of structural power shifts in the region. For China and India, nuclear weapons are inextricably tied to their sense of identity as aspirant great powers. Pakistan’s nuclear capability doesn’t just make an Indian invasion extremely unlikely but also guarantees major power engagement. North Korea is pursuing a highly sophisticated bargaining policy through nuclear blackmail to ensure regime survival.

North Korea’s evolving nuclear capability therefore cements Asia’s second nuclear age. And it’s time to face some uncomfortable truths. First, like it or not, nuclear weapons are here to stay. None of the established and new nuclear powers will give up their capability. Habitual calls for major nuclear arms reductions will fail to achieve much in Asia. For example, as Raja Mohan points out, further reductions in US nuclear stockpiles will do nothing to reduce or freeze China’s nuclear weapons.

Second, more thinking needs to be done on how to ‘manage’ nuclear multipolarity. Increasingly, any crisis in the flashpoints of Asia (such as the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Strait or sub-continent), will be played out in a nuclear context. Making matters worse, traditional concepts of deterrence might be of less relevance in an Asian environment of multiple nuclear players with very different sets of nuclear capabilities and strategic interests. For example, as Thomas Christensen has argued, China’s growing confidence in its nuclear capabilities could make Sino-US crisis management increasingly difficult since Beijing might feel more emboldened to use conventional military power for coercive purposes.

The US and its allies are also deeply troubled by the prospect of China developing modern nuclear ballistic missile submarines which could potentially operate largely undetected in the open waters of the Pacific. Ensuring nuclear crisis stability in Sino-US relations under conditions of Chinese nuclear modernisation will be an enormously challenging but increasingly important task for both sides.

Moreover, following the law of unintended consequences, the reduced role for nuclear weapons in US strategy has eroded the credibility of America’s extended nuclear deterrence framework in Northeast Asia. Japan for one is faced with nuclear encirclement, ie the prospect of nuclear blackmail by both North Korea and China. South Korea faces a similar calculus and, in response to Pyongyang’s latest test, voices in Japan and South Korea called for the development of an indigenous nuclear capability.

While such thinking certainly isn’t official policy in either Tokyo or Seoul, there might come a time when a phone call from US President Obama to assure his Japanese counterpart of the continued functionality of America’s nuclear ‘umbrella’ will no longer be enough. Imagine for example a scenario where Japan and China come to blows at sea and the US provides less support than its ally has hoped for out of fear of escalation. Japan might then well decide that it’s time to dust off its plutonium.

We can’t wish away the fact that the bomb will play a major role in Asia–Pacific security. As Rod Lyon argued in a 2009 ASPI study, Australian strategy-makers need to consider the prospect of a ‘darker Asian nuclear future’. Indeed, if anything the latest North Korean nuclear test is a stark reminder of that very possibility. Instead of solely focussing on ways to reverse North Korea’s nuclear capability, international strategies will have to pay greater attention to the question of how to manage it, both through dialogue with Pyongyang and measures of active and passive defence.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user pasukaru76.