On 10 October 2017, Bilahari Kausikan, widely touted as Singapore’s top foreign policy guru, published a piece in The Washington Post in which he argued that the only way to deter a nuclear-capable North Korea was to encourage both Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons programmes.
What he got right
Let me start off by saying that Bilahari is correct on some things.
He is right on the absence of viable military solutions: “The time for preemptive kinetic action has passed. Since North Korea already has nuclear devices, if not yet fully operational nuclear weapons, all it has to do is detonate those devices close to its South Korean or Chinese borders to raise the stakes of preemptive action to unacceptable levels. The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ruthless enough to do so.”
He is also right that “China cannot stop North Korea.” I do disagree with him about the reasons thereof. Regime change in this instance means only replacing Kim Jong-Un with another leader from the North Korean government who is more amenable to China’s long-term geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Korean Peninsula.
Finally, he is right about the strategic rationality of North Korea: “Pyongyang … can be deterred: the regime is bad but not mad. It is coldly rational, calculating exactly how far it can go in any set of circumstances.”
But, when he proposes that the best way to deter North Korea is to encourage Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons programmes? That’s where I draw the line.
Horizontal nuclear proliferation as the strategic answer?
Of course, there are caveats to the proposal.
As he writes, “I don’t think Japan and South Korea are eager to become nuclear-armed states, nor is Washington eager for that to happen.” But he also adds that as long as the two countries remain within the current strategic relationship with the US, this is for him “the least bad option.”
He recognises that there will be significant hurdles.
China, in particular, “will pull out all stops short of war to prevent Japan going nuclear, raising the shibboleth of Japan’s remilitarization to try and rally Americans, Japanese, Koreans and others in East Asia against Tokyo. But it will fail.” China cannot threaten Japan’s nuclear programmes with “preemptive military action” because that would bring the US into a war with China, a war which “cannot end well for China” as “it would jeopardize the CCP’s rule.”
Nevertheless, as he further argues, “However difficult the process of getting to a six-way balance of mutually assured destruction may be, once established, it will be stabilizing. All six countries are rational and are functioning polities.”
Furthermore, “A Northeast Asian balance of mutually assured destruction will freeze the status quo. It will be an absolute obstacle to the revanchist ambitions that are embedded in the narrative of the “great rejuvenation” of China by which the CCP now legitimates itself and which are manifest in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea cannot be reversed, nor will China give up its claims. But forcing China to at least suspend its ambitions at their current level will make for more stable Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relations and a more stable East Asia.”
Finally, he argues, “Freezing the status quo will put an end to the chimera of Korean reunification and make for healthier relations between the North and the South. Reunification is an aspiration that neither has really been in a hurry to achieve. For the North, unless entirely on its own terms, reunification means the end of the regime. For the South, the incorporation of 25 million North Koreans who have no experience of a modern market economy into a population of 51 million will irrevocably change South Korea and not for the better. Better to end all pretense.”
But horizontal nuclear proliferation is NOT the answer
I offer three reasons why his proposal is strategic lunacy.
One, MAD (mutually assured destruction) was a US doctrine, and there is no conclusive evidence that the Soviet Union ever bought into MAD. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity with the US, the US promulgated the doctrine of MAD. It structured its nuclear forces into a strategic triad, dividing its nuclear arsenal more or less equitably between land-based ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and strategic bombers capable of reaching Soviet air space with nuclear weapons. This was because MAD required the US to retain a retaliatory capability that could survive a massive Soviet nuclear first strike and deliver unacceptable levels of damage against the Soviet Union for its initial aggression. Land-based ICBMs, because of their higher accuracies, were principally first-strike counter-force weapons that were nevertheless potentially vulnerable to a Soviet disarming counter-force first strike. The strategic bombers and ballistic missile submarines were, presumably, more survivable, and packed sufficient destructive power to render any Soviet counter-force first strike to be strategically useless thereafter. Because of their lower accuracies, these retaliatory capabilities were targeted principally against the major Soviet urban centres.
However, the Soviet Union’s nuclear force structure, based principally on its land-based ballistic missiles and retaining only a small proportion of nuclear weapons in strategic bombers and ballistic missile submarines, suggested that it did not subscribe to MAD. Rather, this force structure suggested that the Soviet Union believed in a doctrine whereby in the event of a superpower war, it would launch a massive attack against the US designed to completely destroy the latter.
In other words, MAD might have plausibly persuaded the US that it did not need to initiate nuclear war; the same cannot be definitively said of the Soviet Union.
Secondly, for MAD to work, the Soviet Union and the US required sufficient early warning of a land-based nuclear launch, the principal arm of the strategic triad – given their relative accuracy – that would have been used to attack the nuclear forces of each other. The early warning systems that both superpowers maintained provided them with a reaction time of approximately 30 minutes. Presumably, this would have been sufficient time for sufficient numbers of strategic bombers to deploy for a retaliatory strike against the adversary. Further retaliatory capability was maintained in the ballistic missile submarines that were already deployed in the vicinity of their respective launch areas.
In other words, it is precisely the mechanics of MAD that preclude such a doctrine from being fruitfully applied to a scenario of a nuclear-armed Northeast Asia. To begin with, the likely nuclear forces of these countries will be so small as to preclude the existence of a retaliatory capability that can survive a nuclear pre-emptive first strike and still possess sufficient capacity to punish the aggressor for its pre-emptive nuclear attack. Furthermore, the region is simply too geostrategically compact, such that warning times of a pre-emptive first strike will be virtually non-existent. There were any number of close calls between the US and the Soviet Union as it was.
Thirdly, MAD will simply create a Mexican Standoff in Northeast Asia. Stemming from the preceding two observations, this will then generate significant pressures on policy makers in Pyongyang, Seoul and Tokyo to “use ’em or lose ’em”. Pre-emptive strikes will become an increasingly attractive, even necessary, policy option at the slightest hint of a political crisis that might result in nuclear devastation if one side hesitates. Even if nothing happens, this will create a situation where none of the states involved can afford to back down. Tension becomes a more or less permanent feature of the relationship. However, in such a Mexican Standoff, the actors involved have to have cool heads, they have to want to maintain the standoff without recourse to shooting. No coughing! No sudden movements!
Postscript: My colleague, Richard Bitzinger, wrote a piece that demonstrates the technical difficulties and steps that Japan would have to undergo to develop a nuclear weapons programme. His conclusion: it ain’t easy!