UNIFIED NUCLEAR KOREA WOULD POSE REAL CRISIS FOR JAPAN
Northeast Asia has become the world’s most dangerous region today, having surpassed Europe in “missile density.” The same goes for nuclear weapons. In and around this region are three nuclear-armed authoritarian regimes—China, Russia, and North Korea.
Should South Korea, the peninsula nation closest to Japan, be unified with North Korea, a combined military 1.8 million strong would keep Japan within range of nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. Politically, a unified Korea would be much closer to China than to the US. Utilizing deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiments as one of the main pillars of a coveted unification, a unified Korea most likely would face Japan with a far more hostile posture than before.
Should such a situation arise, what is there for Japan to do to protect its land and its people? The US is our ally, but can we remain totally dependent on the Americans for our defense?
This question has been asked time and again. On each occasion, the need to strengthen Japan’s military and revise our “peace” constitution has been emphasized. This was again recently the case during the review of the government plan to deploy the Aegis Ashore missile defense system. But the discussions that began on the need to equip the Japan Self-Defense Forces with the ability to attack enemy bases—discussions that would be a matter of course in any other country—vanished into thin air before anyone knew it. The same thing has happened to the government plan for a constitutional revision, with little progress made over the years.
Against such a backdrop, Richard Lawless, former US Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific (2002-2007), made a daring proposal in a 12,000-word thesis entitled Nuclear North Korea and Japan—The INF Option (Wedge Monthly, December 2020). Stressing the need for a sea change in Japan’s security framework in order to secure its survival against a possible nuclear attack, Lawless made a proposal reflecting a vivid sense of impending crisis facing Japan: Japan must seriously consider an early deployment of the US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) system.
Preoccupied with the rapidly growing threat from China, the US and Japan, among other nations, have failed to work out a decisive means to keep North Korea’s nuclear program in check while sounding the alarm, effectively allowing the recluse communist regime to develop its own nuclear weapons.
Seoul’s Servile Posture Toward Pyongyang
“North Korean nuclear weapons atop deployed ballistic missiles can target US bases in Japan as well as Guam and Hawaii,” observes Lawless. “All of which unpin America’s entire political-military strategy in the Western Pacific.”
Lawless reminds the US and Japan to closely examine the scenario of unification for the two Koreas and its ramifications. With South Korea’s political turmoil easily discernible from Japan, Japanese are generally aware that President Moon Jae-in is quite capable of scrapping the South Korea-US alliance in favor of the coveted unification. Clearly, Moon is far more interested in making overtures to China than to the US, despite the fact that the latter protected his nation during the Korean War (1950-53).
Moon is incredibly servile to the North. When Kim Yo-jong, the powerful younger sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, had the inter-Korea liaison office building in Kaesong blown up on June 16 and called South Koreans “mongrel dogs” and “garbage,” Moon offered to send Suh Hoon, then head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), to Pyongyang in order to improve relations. When Kim flatly rejected that offer, Moon pushed Hoon aside, appointing Park Jie-in as the spy chief. Well-informed sources view Park as an agent of the North.
Park is widely reputed to have intimate relations with the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of North Korea—the North’s intelligence/propaganda outfit tasked with targeting the South. That Moon has appointed this dangerous man as the new NIS head is tantamount to having sold South Korea to North Korea. Despite hoisting the flag of a democratic state with a 51 million-plus population, Moon acts as though he is a vassal to the North Korean dictator—much in the same way he kowtows to Xi Jinping.
Although the North has a wide range of options in dealing with the South, conciliation remains the only means available to the latter. The South’s weaknesses embolden the North to provoke the South, manipulating Seoul at will by utilizing its nuclear trump card. The Moon administration obviously is not too keen on maintaining the US-South Korea alliance. It would be correct to say that Moon actually would rather scrap it, beyond which he is determined to fully support the North materially and psychologically in order to achieve a unification of the Korean people.
At this juncture it is unthinkable that South Korea would join the US in urging North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile program. The North will never give up its nuclear arsenal after all. As a result, the two Koreas will inevitably be merged with each other, as Lawless sees it, leading to the birth of a unified or confederated nuclear Korea with 75 million people that will become ‟a regional political power, as well as an international economic force,” combining the nuclear technology of the North with the economic and technological power of the South.
Lawless urges Japan to face up squarely to this impending crisis and start preparations without delay. Enhancing the US-Japan alliance is what every thinking Japanese believes Japan should immediately undertake. Lawless expounds on the importance of Japan demonstrating to both Koreas and China that the US-Japan alliance will be rock solid going forward.
In order to specifically “make a US conventional and nuclear deterrent credible (for Japan) with assurance of that ultimate deterrence made clear to its potential enemies,” Lawless proposes that Japan request a permanent deployment of INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) systems in Japan proper. This would call for a “dual-key arrangement” to make absolutely sure that missiles could only be launched when agreement was reached between the US and Japan. “Parallel release authorities” would be held by the national leadership of both nations, notes Lawless.
Possibility of Nuclear Attack by Unified Korea
This system is exactly what the US and Europe adopted during the Cold War to contend with the threat of the Soviet Union. In a desperate effort to counter a sudden Soviet deployment of INF missiles targeting European nations, West German Foreign Minister Helmut Schmidt appealed to the US in 1978 to install similar missiles in Europe. The US—which at the time did not have INF missiles available—complied, hurriedly manufacturing them and posting them in Europe. As a result, the US and the Soviet Union agreed to begin nuclear disarmament negotiations, eventually scrapping all of their intermediate-range missiles. Today, China has the largest number of these missiles.
There is no question that the Chinese and North Koreans are aiming their missiles at Japan. According to Lawless, there would be a greater possibility of North Korea using nuclear weapons against Japan if its provocative acts were to escalate into an unstoppable chain of hostile actions. Under such circumstances, Japan would be powerless to defend itself on its own. If that were the case, the only possible solution would be an introduction of the INF systems, which Lawless stresses would require a joint US-Japan operation to protect Japan.
How should we view this proposal by Lawless? He makes no mention of the reality of the extreme economic distress in North Korea today, or of the fact that Japan has yet to change a single word of its constitution.
Sanctioned internationally and stuck in an economic cul-de-sac, the Kim Jong-un regime is faced with a severe crisis. It would not be easy for him to lead a North-South unification in tandem with Moon. What moves would China and the US make under such a scenario? Obviously, neither would remain a silent observer. But over the long haul, there is no denying that the Korean Peninsula will be dragged steadily into China’s sphere of influence.
As matters stand now, Japan will have no choice but to continue relying on the US-Japan alliance to thwart the threat of China. But will the US still readily accept Japan as its ally, given Japan’s reluctance to make significant changes in its defense structure? Some quarters favor an upgrade of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) initiative between Australia, India, Japan, and the US to a full-fledged military alliance like NATO. But such a discussion is pie in the sky in Japan, which hasn’t even managed to rewrite its constitution. The thesis by Lawless made me painfully aware of a host of tough hurdles Japan has lying ahead.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 931 in the December 17, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)