Confronting North Korea: Friendly Proliferation May Be Safer for America than Holding a Nuclear Umbrella

Looking to its legacy, the Obama administration may declare no first use of nuclear weapons. Some Asia specialists concerned about North Korea argue against making such a pledge. That's another reason it might be better for Washington to encourage its ally South Korea to go nuclear.

Washington has possessed nuclear weapons for more than 70 years. No one doubts that the U.S. would use nukes in its own defense. After all, America became the first nation to use the atomic bomb--against Japan in World War II.

However, since then Washington has extended a so-called "nuclear umbrella" over many of its allies which lack nuclear weapons. Exactly who is so protected and under what circumstances? No one really knows, especially with the Obama administration moving to narrow the circumstances for use of nuclear weapons.

Early in the Cold War the U.S. threatened "massive retaliation" in Europe to offset Soviet conventional superiority. Once Moscow acquired an equivalent nuclear arsenal that approach lost appeal. Nevertheless, Washington still promised to use nuclear weapons in its NATO allies' defense, though the precise circumstances under which the U.S. would act were not clear.

The U.S. also holds, probably, a nuclear umbrella over its Mideast allies. With perhaps 200 of its own nukes, Israel doesn't need American protection, though no election-minded U.S. politicians would admit as much. The U.S. could use nuclear weapons on behalf of Saudi Arabia and perhaps other friendly states, though that is far from clear. Certainly Washington is expected to prevent adversaries, such as Iran, from developing nukes. If Tehran moved ahead, some observers believe that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey would respond with their own programs.

Northeast Asia is the region where nuclear threats seem greatest. Japan and South Korea are thought to be snuggled beneath America's nuclear umbrella, which has discouraged both from acquiring their own weapons. Other possible claimants include Taiwan and Australia, though, again, no one quite knows what Washington would do when. Presumably the guarantee runs against Russia (and before it, the Soviet Union), People's Republic of China, and Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The "umbrella" obviously is defensive, that is, to protect American allies against the first use of nukes. However, Washington also could--and, it appears, would, if necessary, whatever that might mean--use nuclear weapons first to stop a conventional attack. While Moscow and Beijing might not be particularly friendly with America these days, they aren't likely to attack the Republic of Korea or Japan. More plausible is a North Korean invasion of the ROK.

Extended nuclear deterrence always has been risky for the U.S. It means being willing to fight a nuclear war on behalf of others, that is, Americans would risk Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles to, say, defend Berlin and Tokyo. At least bilateral deterrence among great powers tends to be reasonably stable, though credibility issues remain. Is Washington really willing to risk nuclear war over an issue of limited importance? The Chinese already have queried whether Americans believe saving Taipei is worth losing Los Angeles. It isn't, or at least it shouldn't be.

Dealing with North Korea is potentially more dangerous. Some analysts estimate that it could have 50 or more nuclear weapons in just a few more years. While Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, wants his virgins in this world rather than the next, his judgment and stability are problematic. He might start a war inadvertently. Yet the DPRK eventually may gain the ability to strike the U.S. by developing long-range missiles as well as nuclear weapons. The North isn't likely to attack first, but it still could lay waste to a major U.S. city.

Which would be very bad indeed. Yet advocates of extended deterrence are criticizing proposals for an American pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons. Writing for NK News analyst Robert E. McCoy argued that the U.S. should not announce the conditions under which it would use nukes given Kim's threats to use them: "It is imperative that Kim Jong-un is made to understand that he faces the destructive power of our entire weapons arsenal at all times when it comes to threatening the U.S. or its allies."

Yet that is precisely the problem. It is one thing for Washington to use nuclear weapons, including preemptively, to protect America. It is quite different to do so for allies. Alliances are a means, not an end, that is, a mechanism to help defend the U.S. A North Korean attack on the ROK would be awful, a humanitarian tragedy. But American security would not be directly threatened. Certainly there is no threat warranting the risk of nuclear retaliation on the U.S.

Of course, those being defended have configured their security policy and force structure in response. The Brookings' Jonathan D. Pollack and Richard C. Bush note: "Non-nuclear states living in the shadow of nuclear-armed adversaries have long relied on U.S. security guarantees, specifically the declared commitment to employ nuclear weapons should our allies be subject to aggression with conventional forces." But future policy should not be held captive to the past.

Pollack and Bush warn against putting allies' security at risk. However, Washington's chief responsibility should be America's security. Backers of the status quo act like there is no alternative to leaving the ROK (and Japan, which faces a real, though less direct, threat from the DPRK) vulnerable to attack. However, Seoul is well able to deter and defeat the North. The ROK possesses around 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea, as well as a vast technological lead and an extensive international support network. Japan, which long possessed the world's second largest economy, also could do far more.

The South is capable of developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, a half century ago the current president's father, President Park Chung-hee, dropped the ROK's program under intense U.S. pressure. But interest in a South Korean bomb never entirely died, with polls showing public support for such an option today.

Opposition to nuclear weapons is stronger in Japan, but an ROK weapon would put enormous pressure on Tokyo to conform. The U.S. should not press either nation to choose the nuclear option. But Washington should indicate that it no longer plans to put its cities on the line for anything other than truly vital interests involving America, which are not at stake here.

Obviously, there are plenty of good reasons to oppose proliferation, even among friends. The more nuclear powers, the greater the potential for instability, proliferation, and use. However, the alternative in this case is not stability, nonproliferation, and nonuse. Rather, it is entangling Washington in the middle of other nations' potential conflicts involving all of Asia's threatening powers, China, Russia, and North Korea. The result is to make America less secure.

Pollack and Bush write about "Northeast Asia's inescapable realities." However, precisely such realities suggest withdrawing the U.S. from that region's nuclear imbroglio. Then America's allies could engage in containment and deterrence, just as America did for them for so many years.