Dealing with a nuclear North Korea: Expect the unexpected
Regional powers should push for denuclearization while preparing for the worst
HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator
TOKYO -- When faced with a crisis never before experienced, people tend to underestimate the seriousness of the situation and think things won't become too bad. In social psychology, this is called normalcy bias.
We already may have defaulted to this state as regards North Korea.
About 20 years ago, we thought we would never see the day when North Korea would have nuclear missiles deployed and ready to fire, at least not in the near future. Now, a nuclear North is almost a foregone conclusion.
On the surface, things look slightly less perilous. The U.S., Japan and South Korea are maintaining pressure on Korea. China, once a staunch ally, has become aloof. According to a source close to the Chinese government, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his recent Beijing visit, was told in confidence that North Korea will run out of aviation fuel in about three months. In other words, China tacitly promised to restrict crude oil supplies to North Korea over the next 100 days or so.
Whether this is true is unknown, but there are telling signals. On May 26, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told journalists in Beijing that she thinks China understands that North Korea is a "time-limited problem set."
North Korea relies on China for most of its crude oil. If China cuts supplies, it could impact the country, one Chinese foreign policy expert said. The three missile tests carried out in three straight weeks last month were probably part of Pyongyang's last-minute rush to prepare for negotiations before fuel runs out, the expert said.
But this optimism doesn't appear to be shared by government officials in the U.S. and Japan. Instead, they increasingly seem to think that Pyongyang will never abandon its nuclear ambitions.
This is because China seems reluctant to corral North Korean leader Kim Jong Un until the very last minute. China, which does not want the North to collapse, is still wary of imposing additional U.N. sanctions on the country.
China fears border instability with North Korea, says a U.S. government official familiar with China's internal politics. There is not enough pressure on the North yet, the official said, explaining that the U.S. has been repeatedly calling on China, by setting a deadline, to stop the situation from spiraling out of control.
But China is not the only reason for U.S. and Japanese pessimism. Another is that the more the U.S. considers the military option, the more it realizes it is not an easy choice.
Estimates suggest that if the U.S. goes to war with North Korea, hundreds of South Korean soldiers would die. Some of the 200,000 or so Americans currently in South Korea, including soldiers and their families, could also be killed or injured.
A former U.S. government official once involved with North Korean policy said it is hard to believe that White House officials with military backgrounds who understand this reality would advise the president to take a decision that effectively means abandoning U.S. citizens.
Defense Secretary James Mattis recently said, "If this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale."
A soft approach by the new South Korean administration could also complicate matters. Given the election of Moon Jae-in as president, collective international pressure on the North may slacken, prompting the country to accelerate its nuclear and missile development.
Some Japanese and U.S. experts believe that North Korea will complete development of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland within a few years. This may lead North Korea "to believe complacently that it can attack Japan or South Korea with its nuclear weapons without the risk of nuclear retaliation by the U.S.," a Japanese government official said. "Pyongyang could engage in even more provocative actions," the official added.
The U.S., Japan and South Korea can prevent this by strengthening ties with China and doing everything possible to counter North Korean threats. This could still fail to stop the country, but even so, a disastrous outcome must be avoided: panic, followed by a worst-case scenario. The U.S., Japan and South Korea should immediately start figuring out how to deal with a nuclear North in order to maintain peace in Northeast Asia.
U.S. and Japanese security experts suggest that the allies should step up warnings by deploying ever more of U.S. nuclear assets in Asia to deter North Korea from using nuclear weapons. Their rationale is that it would send a message to the North that any nuclear attack would be met with a retaliatory strike from the U.S.
One option, experts say, is for U.S. forces to conduct more patrols and drills near the Korean Peninsula with nuclear capable strategic bombers, such as the B-1, B-2 and B-52 aircraft. Some in the armed forces call for deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea.
The drawback of this strategy is that it will likely increase tension in Asia similar to the Cold War. It is also unclear whether and how much nuclear deterrence can be effective against a dictatorship as disturbing as North Korea's.
The allies, therefore, should stick to denuclearization through sanctions and pressure while preparing for a nuclear North and speeding up efforts to build a missile defense.
About a year ago, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima. As the world's sole victim of atomic bomb attacks, Japan should not abandon the ideal of "a world without nuclear weapons."
It is also a sad reality, however, that the need for the American nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia is greater than ever.
For its part, Japan needs to be pragmatic about its ideal of a nuclear-free world while quietly taking the necessary precautionary steps for dealing with the realities of today.