this vantange point in northeast Asia, Western-backed efforts to halt the global
spread of nuclear weapons appear as an unrealistic mix of idealism, ideology and
hypocrisy, and destined to fail.
This is not to say that South Koreans or
Japanese want such weapons to proliferate, least all into the hands of North
Korea. But there is an acknowledgement that the spread of nuclear know-how means
that actual possession will inevitably spread unless the countries with nuclear
capability find good reasons not to exercise it.
Having nuclear weapons or not is a
decision that is not necessarily permanent and will be little constrained by
nuclear non-proliferation treaties or rules of the International Atomic Energy
Agency. Perhaps the best defense against their spread is the rarity of
circumstances in which they could be of military value. It is also more
difficult to acquire reliable delivery means than the nuclear weapon itself.
Yet it seems likely that South Korean
laboratory experiments with plutonium and uranium enrichment are the tip of a
global iceberg. Countries that have the capability prepare themselves for the
day when they might need to go public with such capability, whether as a
military threat or for diplomatic purposes.
Clearly, it is not in South Korea?s
interest to pursue this at the present time. Its avowed aim is the
denuclearization of the peninsula. Any overt nuclear moves would collapse its
arguments vis-à-vis the North, destroy its defense relationship with the United
States, and alienate Japan.
But South Korea, like Japan, knows it has
the scientific know-how, the industrial capability and the sources of fuel to go
down the nuclear path should circumstances change. There are growing doubts
about the long-term durability of U.S. commitments in northeast Asia at a time
when China is becoming more assertive. In time this is likely to erase even
Japan's aversion to nuclear weapons. Likewise, failure to halt the North Korean
program could eventually compel the South to respond.
As it is, North Korea is probably already
very close to possessing a device. Testing it would show up the hollowness of
nonproliferation for all to see. However, a demonstration explosion would also
undermine Pyongyang's ability to use its nuclear program as a bargaining chip -
money and security guarantees in return for not going nuclear.
For Pyongyang, as for Israel, it may be
best not to actually detonate a device and thus to preserve the benefits of
Indeed, it seems likely that Iran is
currently going down this road, acquiring the potential in terms of fuel and
technology but leaving sufficient ambiguity to play with the West.
In this region, where only China has the
bomb and others rely on the U.S. umbrella, there appears to be a measure of
sympathy for Iran given its central position in a volatile region, with no
big-power umbrella and with two immediate (Russia and Pakistan) and two near
(India and Israel) neighbors with nuclear weapons.
In Asia generally there is a sense that
nations have the right to make their own decisions, and not to be bullied by a
West that proclaims the doctrine of nonproliferation but turns a blind eye to
Israel and makes only token resistance to Pakistan joining the nuclear club.
Obviously, nuclear proliferation is
undesirable. The more countries possess nuclear weapons, the greater the chance
they will be used. But given the reality of the spread of technical know-how and
the selective nature of Western-led attempts at non-proliferation, a new
approach is needed.
That must focus on addressing the
situations that make acquisition seem desirable and creating more conditions
such as those that have enabled countries such as Brazil and South Africa to
renounce the weapons.
The need to keep nuclear materials out of
nonstate hands would also be better served by less hypocritical attitudes that
would acknowledge the realities of nuclear ownership and thus enable better