It has been nearly four years since the Six Party Talks last took place. Since then, the North Korean nuclear problem has been essentially at a standstill. While some had hoped for a resumption of the Talks when the United States and DPRK reached the February 29 Agreement, that hope quickly turned into disappointment when the North Korean government announced less than three weeks later its intention to conduct a “satellite launch.” Although the test itself ended in failure, Pyongyang’s defiance brings about a renewed sense of frustration, one that is close to despair. North Korea’s provocative behavior under its new leader Kim Jong Un has dashed any hopes had before the power succession that the young Kim might be open to negotiating with the West. So far, there is little hope that North Korea will return to the Six Party Talks anytime soon.
In fact, the most disturbing development on the North Korean problem since 2008 is the growing possibility that North Korea may never give up its nuclear program, no matter how long diplomatic efforts go on. This presents a serious problem for the United States. On the one hand, upcoming presidential elections in Washington and Seoul, an anticipated leadership transition in China, and continuing political uncertainty in Japan all suggest that the next six to twelve months will not be the best time for diplomacy. In this sense, “strategic patience”—maintaining pressure on the North by enforcing existing economic sanctions, sending a clear signal that any provocative behavior would be promptly met by decisive action, and keeping channels of communication open while not rushing to enter into negotiations prematurely—may be the best course of action in the short term. On the other hand, “strategic patience” should not mean continuing the status quo forever. If North Korea consistently refuses to return to negotiations (Six Party Talks or otherwise) as it continues to make progress on its nuclear program, Washington may be forced to change its declared policy goal vis-à-vis North Korea’s nuclear program from “dismantlement” to “containment,” acquiescing to Pyongyang’s status as a de facto nuclear weapons state as long as it does not proliferate. The probability of such a policy shift by the US will only grow as the current diplomatic impasse persists.
Should the US make such a shift, it would have a devastating impact on the international community’s effort to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons. What is potentially more serious for US security interests in Northeast Asia, however, is its possible impact on alliance relations with Japan and South Korea.
Over the years, the security threats posed by North Korea—both nuclear and conventional—have served as a primary driver to facilitate relations between the US, Japan, and South Korea. In particular, these three countries have long shared the goal of an eventual complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. Should this overarching goal disappear due to a change in American policy, the divergence in threat perceptions vis-à-vis North Korea—which has existed among the three partners but has not been explicitly demonstrated in the face of this overarching goal of a nuclear-free North Korea—will likely resurface, only to cause a strain on trilateral security relations.
Specifically, what would such a US policy change mean for Japan? Tokyo has consistently insisted that it cannot tolerate a nuclear North Korea, largely because Japan considers itself as the only potential target for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. From the American perspective, the distance between the continental United States and North Korea makes Washington more concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear and other WMD proliferation, rather than a nuclear attack. Although South Korea is investing more heavily in improving its military capability to deal with the WMD threat, Seoul’s primary concern remains the North’s conventional military capability and short-range missiles. Furthermore, as long as the two Koreas strive for eventual reunification, many South Koreans believe that it is inconceivable for the North to target them with its nuclear arsenal. Therefore, while the United States and South Korea may think that a nuclear North Korea is not desirable but tolerable, Japan feels a tangible and direct military threat. This means a US policy of containing a North Korea with a limited nuclear capability is an unacceptable prescription for Japan, and will likely to be seen as the US not only sacrificing Tokyo’s acute security concerns in order to reach a settlement with Pyongyang, but also triggering a strong sense of abandonment, resentment, and betrayal among the Japanese public and in the political leadership.
An increasing perception of the US abandoning Japan would have a number of adverse effects. For example, the cooperation between US and Japanese defense officials as well as the two militaries is today closer than ever—in fact, deepening defense cooperation between the two militaries is a positive development in the US-Japan alliance that remains unpublicized. Even when the US-Japan alliance hit a significant speed bump during the tenure of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over the issue of the relocation of Marine Air Station in Futenma, the US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces continued to nurture their working relationship. The public perception of a diminishing US security commitment to Japan would create an atmosphere that would significantly undermine the working relationship between the two defense establishments, despite the fact that the US would, of course, still be obligated to defend Japan as stipulated by the Mutual Security Treaty. It would also undermine the public’s confidence in America’s commitment to protect Japan by providing extended nuclear deterrence. In short, a US policy shift away from the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program could considerably sour attitudes among the Japanese public and political leadership—two important constituents for maintaining the alliance.
The erosion of Japanese confidence would be destabilizing for the region as well. Up to the present, the security threat from North Korea has been driving Japan to deepen its defense ties with the United States. Japan’s efforts so far have been focused on acquiring defense capabilities that are useful not only in shoring up its own capabilities, but also in strengthening cooperation with the United States. Cooperation on ballistic missile defense is the prime example. From cooperation on ballistic missile defense, to the decision by the Maritime Self-Defense Force to invest in its command and control, communications, computer, intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) several years ago, to last year’s decision by the Air Self-Defense Force to acquire the F-35 to replace its retiring F-4 fighter aircraft, Japan’s post-Cold War defense buildup has focused on the capabilities and platforms that allow its Self-Defense Forces to achieve seamless joint operations with the American military.
Even if Japan does not go so far as to walk away from the alliance, a US decision to shift the goal of its North Korea policy from “dismantlement” to “containment” would likely drive Tokyo to distance itself from the United States. This means, for example, the revival of the debate in support of Japan acquiring preemptive offensive capabilities and adjusting its legal framework to allow such an acquisition in the near term. The sense of abandonment and/or betrayal vis-à-vis the United States under such a circumstance would result in a politically permissive environment for Japan to make such a move.
It would also create space in Japanese policy discourse for proponents of an autonomous defense posture, many of whom also argue that Japan should acquire an independent nuclear capability. Today, they are considered marginal, too extreme, and only representing a small part of the Japanese population. It is unlikely that Japan would eventually decide to pursue its own nuclear weapons capability, particularly in view of the intensified nuclear opposition among the public after the Fukushima nuclear accident. Still, this kind of policy shift would likely create an environment in which a nuclear option is more openly discussed and considered. Given Japan’s rising tension with China and persisting mistrust of South Korea, such developments would only destabilize the security environment in East Asia. It would not benefit anyone in the region (maybe with the exception of North Korea), and certainly would not benefit the United States.
One step to lessen the immediate impact of a US policy shift would be for Washington to continue to argue that its ultimate goal remains the denuclearization of North Korea. That would certainly be true although achieving such an outcome is clearly more difficult. Even if how to get from here to there remains a challenging open question, this approach would, at least in the near term, give Japan a sense of reassurance that its security concerns are being taken into account, which would go a long way in countering the extreme voices within the country.
However, policymakers should realize that the longer the current impasse lasts, the harder it will be to sustain such an approach, particularly if North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities continue to grow unchecked. On the other hand, if the US can, through diplomatic or other means, achieve some progress on the North Korean nuclear problem—even if only by gradually limiting the growth of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities—then it may be possible to successfully manage its allies’ reactions to this recalibration, avoiding greater mistrust and instability in East Asia.