Any map of Northeast Asia shows that three countries surrounding South Korea -- North Korea, China and Russia -- have nuclear weapons, and now there are signs that even Japan is inching toward arming itself with the bomb. A look at the countries involved in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program shows that five of them, except South Korea, are either nuclear armed or potentially armed. The nuclear map of Northeast Asia is changing now that Japan has revised laws in late June that suggest it wants to develop nuclear weapons too. South Korea alone in the region has no prospect of acquiring them.
Why does Seoul continue to adhere to what looks like an increasingly outdated peace and denuclearization policy? The goal of denuclearization in Northeast Asia has become unattainable. North Korea is not going to abandon its nuclear weapons even at the cost of its own collapse, since the regime saw clearly what happened to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi when he gave them up.
Japan has turned the nuclear crisis into an opportunity. China's military might is increasing every day, and the re-election of the hawkish Vladimir Putin as Russia's new president has apparently prompted Japan to gear itself up for potential increases in military conflicts and diplomatic friction in Northeast Asia. This has resulted in Tokyo taking necessary steps so it could arm itself with nuclear weapons if the need arises. North Korea will undoubtedly use that development as an excuse to spur its own nuclear arms program.
The U.S. seems either to implicitly side with or even support Japan. When it was revealed that Japan had revised its nuclear law, South Korea and China expressed serious concern, but Washington did not appear too concerned.
Major U.S. dailies such as the New York Times and Washington Post did not cover the decision, while prominent American columnists, who had been quick to sound the alarm upon any signs of a threat to world peace or the slightest rise in the nuclear threat, were silent. Perhaps in their eyes, Japan’s moves were insignificant compared to the North Korean nuclear threat or the rising military might of China.
The U.S. is busy trying to appease South Korea by slightly boosting the range of its missiles and stressing the usefulness of the U.S.-led nuclear umbrella. The House Armed Services Committee voted in support of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons in the Western Pacific, but the State Department and Defense Department are vehemently against it and the White House appears set to veto it. Their opposition may be due to fears of provoking China, but the whole thing looks like a well-planned strategy.
In the long term, the U.S. will place more importance on keeping Beijing in check and maintaining the status quo rather than promoting understanding and mutual interests among Northeast Asian countries. The denuclearization of North Korea and the nuclear security of South Korea will become secondary. Right now, Washington is in favor of bolstering Japan's military power so it can serve as a proxy in restraining China. Paradoxically, the U.S. may even be seeking to arm Northeast Asian countries with nuclear weapons to create a state of mutually assured destruction so that no country would be foolish enough to pull the trigger.
But why is Japan being allowed to possess nuclear weapons but not South Korea? We cannot trust any country, including the U.S., when it comes to nuclear weapons. Remarkably, pro-North Korean activists in South Korea are silent about Washington's opposition to Seoul developing its own nuclear arms, which means they are in effect being pro-American.
South Korea is about to become extremely vulnerable as its Northeast Asian neighbors bolster their nuclear arsenals. Every time there is a call for South Korea to have nuclear weapons, opponents cite as reasons international laws, relations with Washington, or the danger of provoking China and North Korea. But those fears are becoming less and less convincing as North Korea shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear program and Japan moves to arm itself with nukes.
Japan's moves should be leading to the exact same consequences that South Korean opponents fear, yet there has been little resistance. Why can South Korea not do the same?
What clout could South Korea possibly wield in future denuclearization talks when the other five members are nuclear-armed states. What would North Korea gain by talking to us? This does not mean that we should immediately acquire our own nuclear weapons. But we should at least start serious discussion about whether we need them and free ourselves from the self-imposed shackles. We should at least have a nuclear option.
How can we possibly consider ourselves an independent and sovereign state if we cannot acquire our own weapons within reasonable limits due to fears of foreign opposition? The nuclear map of Northeast Asia is being re-drawn, yet there is no place on that map for South Korea.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dae-joong