Will the US have to nuke Asia to save it?

Peter Lee September 16, 2016 9:26 AM (UTC+8)
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I can pat myself on the back for predicting back in April that, sooner or later, US nukes would return to Asia to counter the relative decline in America’s military advantage.  That moment seems to have come sooner, rather than later, thanks to the ingenuity of North Korean bomb builders.

North Korea’s most recent nuclear test elicited considerable anxiety among the cognoscenti, as it appears to have been a successful test of a warhead with a big bang that has been miniaturized so it can be placed on a ballistic missile.

A piece by Jeffrey Lewis, America’s go-to expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, pretty much says it all: North Korea’s Nuke Program is Way More Sophisticated Than You Think: This is now a serious nuclear arsenal that threatens the region and, soon, the continental United States.

In other words, North Korea appears well on the way to becoming a legitimate nuclear weapons power, one with the ability to churn out nuclear warheads in bulk and possessing the delivery systems to get them to where they can do the most damage.

North Korea is a major problem for US nonproliferation strategy. It’s a major problem because US policy toward North Korea is burdened by, if I may put it this way, three original sins.

First, George W. Bush designated North Korea as one of the three members of the “Axis of Evil”, reportedly because he needed a non-Middle Eastern baddie to challenge the “War on Muslims” optics that would have governed if he had named Iraq, Iran … and Syria.

In response, the North Koreans hastened to demonstrate their nuclear program to outside observers.  We’ve got deterrent!

Second, the Bush administration engaged in a covert program of economic blockade and financial sanctions that was intended not to change the regime’s behavior but to overthrow it.  Message: US is North Korea’s existential adversary!

Third, the Obama administration, at the urging of Hillary Clinton, pitched in with a third blunder: backing the deposition (and eventual murder) of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.  It is little remembered today, but Qaddafi’s dismantling of his WMD programs (and the payment of over one billion dollars in indemnities) was a signature victory for the aggressive Bush counter-proliferation policy.

With Qaddafi’s fall, the North Koreans extracted the lesson that if they disarmed, the US could turn on a dime, renege on the deal, and go full regime change.  Message received: Hold on to those nukes!

When one considers that North Korea has been trying to reach out to the US as a balance against the PRC and South Korea for two decades, the US achievement in turning North Korea into a belligerent nuclear-armed adversary is rather impressive.

Perhaps US strategists were lulled into complacency by the thought of US military omnipotence, and by racist assumptions immortalized in The Interview that the tyrannical dingbats of the Hermit Kingdom couldn’t hack the science needed to become a genuine nuclear threat.  And, to be honest, a hostile North Korea was a useful excuse for pumping military capabilities into North Asia to contain China.

With this context, the Obama administration realized the futility of denuclearization-themed engagement with North Korea and opted for “strategic patience” i.e. doing nothing.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared the US had washed its hands of dealings with the North Koreans and “would not buy the same horse twice” i.e. would not negotiate in circles for the same concessions again and again.  A more accurate analogy might have been “The horse we tried to shoot three times is not going to walk up to us hoping for a lump of sugar”.

Well, North Korea was actually a pretty high-functioning industrial state until the collapse of the USSR deprived it of the energy subsidies it needed to maintain its model of mechanized agriculture and urban industrialization.  So its ability to survive sanctions and develop a viable nuclear weapons capability is not totally unexpected.

US embarrassment at its inability to keep a lid on the North Korean nuclear weapons program is accentuated by an extremely important fact: the US monopoly on nuclear weapons capability within the circle of its allies in Asia is the key US advantage when it comes to leading the anti-China containment alliance, excuse me the pivot.  If the locals have their own nukes — and arming up with nukes has been an open topic of discussion in Japan and South Korea and even Taiwan for decades — and their own deterrent, they’ll have their own security policy and much less incentive to follow Uncle Sam’s lead.

The unquestioned US ability to deter and defeat — and eliminate the need for national nuclear weapons programs — is the bedrock of the Asian system.  If confidence in this system is shaken — for instance, by a regional enemy coming up with a viable nuclear weapons capability — interesting things happen.

Things like the South Korean military freaking out at the latest North Korean test and announcing it has a plan to level Pyongyang in a pre-emptive conventional strike if it perceives a nuclear threat:

Seoul has already developed a plan to “annihilate” Pyongyang in a massive bombing campaign if the North shows signs of a nuclear attack, the Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified South Korean military source as saying Sunday.

The plan, known as “Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation” (KMPR), was revealed after the Defense Ministry briefed the National Assembly last week on the subject, Yonhap said.

Using colorful language reminiscent of North Korean state media, the report said that Pyongyang would be “reduced to ashes and removed from the map” if signs of an imminent attack were uncovered.

“Every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells as soon as the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon,” the report quoted a source as saying.

Here’s the kicker for US strategists:

“The KMPR is the utmost operation concept the military can have in the absence of its own nuclear weapons,” the source added.

Obviously, Uncle Sam has to bring something special to the table, something with more bite than KMPR, but hopefully less of a war crime, if it wants to claim to lead the response to North Korea.  Otherwise, the South Koreans are signaling they’ll go nuke themselves as a matter of self-defense.

So please welcome Mr. Tactical Nuke back to Asia.  Excuse me, please welcome “extensive deterrence”:

In the wake of Friday’s experiment, Cheong WA Dae on Sunday said the US had vowed to take “all possible measures” to protect South Korea. This includes extensive deterrence policy, which centers on the US providing military and other measures for allies that have been attacked with weapons of mass destruction. 

It has been reported by American media that Obama is unlikely to adopt the “no first use” approach to nuclear weapons, as it would unnerve US allies that rely on US weapons for safety.

“There was fundamental incompatibility between the (nuclear) ‘no first use’ and extended deterrence. … Before meeting Park. It was finally decided that he (Obama) cannot do it,” Paal [Douglas Paal, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace] said. 

As a demonstration of American commitment i.e. its willingness to drop a nuke on North Korea if needed, the US flew a B-52 out of Guam “capable of carrying nuclear weapons” per Reuters for a low altitude flight over South Korea.

The fact that the US military sees the need to play the pre-emptive nuke card in Asia is a clear rebuke to President Obama and his dreams of salvaging his nonproliferation legacy by moving to an explicit retaliation-only nuclear doctrine.  It’s also a sign the US is losing the plot when it comes to maintaining military dominance in Asia and managing North Korea.

The United States has boxed itself in by ignoring North Korea and letting it develop its nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities.

America also did itself no favors either by listening to the Pentagon and putting THAAD into South Korea, presumably on the supposition that anything that antagonized the PRC, contributed to the Pacific missile shield, and split off Seoul from Beijing and pushed it toward Tokyo had to be great!  The incentives for the PRC to help the US out of the current conundrum by pressuring North Korea — and thereby helping the US sustain its nuclear monopoly and unchallenged local pre-eminence — are now pretty low.

Other than letting the situation continue to drift (and allowing North Korea to further develop its burgeoning capabilities for nuclear blackmail), the US doesn’t have a lot of options.  The default position for Hillary Clinton as President, I think, will be a healthy dose of “biting” sanctions/exhortations to China to strangle North Korea/blaming China for insufficient action to disguise US inability to moderate North Korean behavior.

Unfortunately, the PRC taste for confronting North Korea diminishes as the North Korean nuclear capability strengthens.  It’s worth noting that North Korea worries about regime change gambits coming out of China as well as the US and South Korea, and I expect its nuclear deterrent points westward to the PRC as well as south and east.

The most viable but least attractive option is Surrender!  Not Hi-Kim-Jung-un-here-are-the-keys-to-the- White-House surrender, but acknowledging North Korea as a nuclear state and signing a peace treaty.  Peace breaks out … but South Korea probably feels it needs its own nukes to maintain parity with its hostile northern neighbor.  And if ROK has nukes, then Japan has to have its own.  And with that comes de facto independent national security regimes in North Asia.  Instead of being the sole “nuclear weapons democracy” in Asia, the US is one of three and its clout is diluted accordingly.

Option 3 is to restore balance to the force i.e. prolong the US nuclear monopoly by forcibly denuclearizing North Korea and removing the incentive for its neighbors to go nuke.  Hopefully, the North Koreans don’t figure out what’s going on and light off a nuke (or level Seoul with conventional weapons) before JSOC seizes control of the DPRK’s nuclear facilities.

Even more hopefully, the United States doesn’t find it needs a first use pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike to “remove the nuclear threat from the Korean Peninsula” (while coating South Korea and Japan with radioactive fallout).

None of these options are terribly attractive.  And they’re a sign that the endgame of the pivot — which is premised on the idea that the US could always welcome and, if desirable, provoke military escalation to a level that its adversaries will find unsustainable — was budget-fattening wishful thinking rather than hard strategic planning.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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