A study in powerlessness

With its second nuclear test in three years, North Korea continues to illustrate the limits of the power of the US, China, and the international community as a whole.

The underground test, conducted on Monday, appears to have been more successful than the October 2006 test — although it is unclear just how much of a success it was. As Geoffrey Forden wonders, this test could have been a failed test of a 20KT device or a successful test of a miniaturized 4KT device. Pyongyang will undoubtedly be glad to keep its neighbors guessing which is the case.

The response from Japan and other countries has been predictable. Prime Minister Aso Taro spoke of the gravity of this latest development for Japanese national security and stressed cooperation with the US and the international community at the UN Security Council. The House of Representatives moved swiftly to draft a resolution condemning North Korea that could pass as early as Tuesday. The LDP leadership called the test “outrageous.” Okada Katsuya, the new DPJ secretary-general, echoed the government’s sentiments. Japanese conservatives used the test to advance their argument for a more robust Japanese security posture. Abe Shinzo, continuing his comeback effort, demanded firmer sanctions against North Korea, especially against North Korean counterfeiting activities, called for preemptive strike capabilities, and was vaguely supportive of a debate about acquiring nuclear weapons (“A debate on matters of national security ought to be conducted freely”). Komori Yoshihisa said that the test illustrates the limits of the multilateral management of the North Korean problem and argued that Japan, doing whatever it needs to do defend itself, should reopen the debate on a nuclear deterrent. A Sankei “news” article informs readers that North Korea has the power of life and death over Japan, based strictly on the range of the missiles it possesses. In other words, much like last month’s rocket launch, the responses of Japanese political actors to North Korea’s second nuclear test have followed wholly predictable patterns — and show just how powerless Japan is to stop or reverse North Korea’s nuclear program.

Of note is that Japan’s conservatives once again have responded as if the US-Japan alliance and its nuclear umbrella does not exist. Indeed, it is remarkable how cavalier the conservatives are in their disregard for the nuclear umbrella. This is now the standard conservative argument: play up the North Korean threat, play down the US ability to meet that threat, and let a vicious cycle of fear and doubt take over. Do the vast deterrent capabilities of the US really count for nothing in the face of North Korea’s piddling (and shrinking) arsenal? North Korea may be able to deter a first strike aimed at toppling the Kim regime, but is the US somehow incapable of deterring North Korea from launching a suicidal strike against Japan? Of course, back North Korea into a corner to the point where the regime has nothing to lose and then I too may question the ability of the US or anyone else to deter North Korea from doing something like firing a Rodong in Japan’s direction.

Which is why the response of the conservatives is the height of folly. Threatening the very survival of the regime is a good way to make North Korea undeterrable. It’s an unpleasant task, but North Korea’s neighbors are responsible for talking (or buying) North Korea down from the ledge. To wit, criticism of the “talk over pressure” approach is equally foolish. If the goal of negotiations is to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear program, then yes, it is an abject failure. But if the purpose of multilateral diplomacy is to keep talking North Korea down from the ledge and to buy time for its neighbors to plan for regime collapse and to push for gradual opening of the north (however halting), then “jaw-jaw” is essential and must continue, despite the nuclear test. I for one think there is no alternative to the latter.

Hence the distinction between capabilities and power. The US is unquestionably capable of deterring a nuclear strike against Japan, but it takes compellent power over North Korea’s actions. Being unable to make a credible threat of regime change and visibly dependent on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang, Washington has little power other than its deterrent power. Japan, even with a nuclear arsenal of its own, would have even less power over North Korea. This is the unanswered question in the conservative response to every act of provocation by North Korea. If the US is unable to guarantee Japanese security through its immense nuclear arsenal — again, the unstated (or occasionally stated) basis of the argument for a Japanese arsenal — how would a Japanese deterrent be any more powerful? I understand that they could argue that the problem isn’t US capabilities but US commitment, but I have yet to see a convincing demonstration that the US commitment to defend Japan from attack is flagging to the point that Japan would require its own nuclear weapons. I do not think the Japanese public is convinced either.

So given that North Korea has successfully deterred the US and others from initiating regime change, what choice do the participants in the six-party talks but to turn to the UN to condemn the test and then try once again to engage North Korea via the talks? Meanwhile, the governments of the region should continue to treat every day that Kim Jong-il lives as another day for them to plan for regime collapse.

And as for the ongoing effort by Japanese conservatives to undermine the nuclear umbrella? Mr. Roos, you have your work cut out for you.

4 thoughts on “A study in powerlessness

  1. Fascinating post. I have to wonder though, don\’t you think if Japan actually started preparing either a nuclear deterrant or just a significant military, that would motivate China to take action (i.e., cut the aid that keeps the regime going day-to-day)? I don\’t want to make it sound like a cure-all, but it seems to me that it very well could be.


  2. Anonymous

    What if Japan does need the regime in North Korea to stay intact? What if USA does need it too? What if all region\’s countries except S. Korea are pretty satisfied with the status-quo?What if N. Korea knows that too?


  3. Anonymous

    Dear anonymous: there is no \”what if\”. This IS the situation and also the reason why no solution will be found, at least certainly not under the current situation dominated by the easy game called \”bilateral multilateralism\”.


  4. Anonymous

    And what if some 7-8 years ago the previous leader of the DPJ (read non-conservatives) did suggest that Japan can build 2,000 nuclear weapons………So what if this conservative talk is irrelevant(and complete non-sense as every second post of the author), there is not conservative or non-conservative when the survival of a state is concerned?


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