Authors: Isaac Nunoo and Wang Li
Debates about nuclear weapons (NWs) and their imminent destruction have continued to occupy the center stage in international security affairs since first introduced in 1945 by the United States at the ebb of WWII. The desolation caused by the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively is still very fresh in the annals of world history.
Following the Soviet Union’s A-bomb test and America’s subsequent nuclear tests, other nations such as Britain, France, and China also followed suit, bringing the number of states with nuclear weapon possession to five by the mid-1960s. In spite of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which was meant to curtail the further spread of nuclear weapons, the craving for it by states and their leaders has soared momentously. The end of the Cold War, which has led to a multi-polar system, has also signaled a period of unparalleled desire for nuclear arsenals by many states.
On November 29, 2017, DPRK once again tested its latest interconnected ballistic missile, Hwasong-15, which it claims to be an indication of the completion of Pyongyang’s nuclear statehood, thus becoming a full blown nuclear state. This new development is described as a great success due to its capability of reaching the entire U.S. mainland. This new ballistic missile test coupled with those tests conducted since the beginning of the 21st century has raised concerns about security in the region and around the globe. It has also wittingly or unwittingly led to a growing desire by many Asian states, particularly those in the Asia Pacific (South and East Asia) to acquire NWs. Historically, these regions were important zones for political, ideological, economic and social battles between the two superpowers during -the Cold War. The remnants of the Cold War seem to endure today among many states in these regions with some being communist sympathizers while others are more pro-Western. Again, these regions are beleaguered by many territorial disputes and states often clash with each other, thus necessitating the need for hard power capabilities and new defense systems. This has fueled nuclear weapon proliferation in the region, especially since the end of the Cold War. There is a natural obligation for increased armaments in order to defend against a neighbor who could be a potential foe.
A security dilemma arises when a state’s mechanism for boosting its security apparatus adversely impacts the security and perceptions of other states, thus, incentivizing those feeling endangered to take similar actions. The South Asian nuclear security complex, for instance, consists of several security dilemmas, involving states such as Pakistan vs. India, India vs. China, and Russia vs. United States. Another security dilemma is the result of the tension between the United States and China, which is in addition to China’s military presence in the South China Sea. In East Asia, elements of security dilemmas are evident in the relationship between North Korea and Japan, ROK and DPRK, Japan/ROK and China, Taiwan and mainland China; the U.S. and China and the U.S. and DPRK. Does this complicate the already fragile situation or ensure peace and stability?
DPRK has been labeled as a rogue state because it does not conform to international norms, nor observe the dictates of international sanctions leveled against it. Despite the warnings and incentives from world leaders and international groups to discourage Pyongyang from developing its nuclear program, no significant progress has been made. In fact, the first quarter of the 21st century has witnessed an increase in its test firing of ballistic missiles under Kim Jong-un. With the introduction of its “byungjin policy”, Pyongyang now claims to be a nuclear weapon state determined to advance both economic development and nuclear capability. As conceived by Kang Choi, several diplomatic efforts aimed at denuclearizing North Korea have proved futile. Such initiatives include the Geneva Agreed Framework (October 1994), the September 19th agreement (September 2005), the “leap day” agreement (February 2012) and the six-party talks aimed at peaceful denuclearization of DPRK—involving Russia, China, the DPRK, ROK, Japan, and the United States. The dispatch of the US THAAD and other naval ships to the Korean peninsula is an indication of the volatility of the situation. As a consequence, most states around the Korean peninsula want to strengthen their own military and defense systems. Both Russia and the United States are now involved in the politics of the region. This obviously raises concerns of hegemony, sovereignty, balance of power, particularly between China and the United States. The “US-Asia Pivot” concerns Chinese authorities.
DPRK is a test case for both the proliferation ‘pessimists’ and proliferation ‘optimists’. Seongwhun Cheon, a senior research fellow with the Korea Institute for National Unification has called for a U.S. nuclear presence in the region. He has suggested that a small U.S. nuclear arsenal in South Korea would go a long way to ‘Provide a trump card that would enable a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear problem.’ Cheon argues that such a move would become a game changer in the geopolitical and strategic dynamics surrounding the nuclear crisis and could be likened to the “dual-track strategy” used by the Reagan administration in Western Europe in the 1980s. Other scholars and experts like Bolton and Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce believe that DPRK’s nuclear program is mainly for state pride and glory of a nuclear statehood. To them, “the only credible use of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal is to detonate a bomb within DPRK.” However, given the progress made so far in DPRK’s missile development program, the latter’s argument is whitewashed.
Pyongyang’s actions have culminated in a complex security dilemma that involves neo-liberal domestic politics in the nuclear ambition of a state and realist regional and extra-regional powers with varying interests. Wheeler and Booth have warned that the interpretation of the intention and the capabilities of the other nation is a major factor that determines the birthing of a security dilemma. Whenever, an action of a state is erroneously interpreted, there is bound to be a miscalculated reaction which will ultimately have serious security corollaries. Thus, misinterpreting China’s nuclear assertiveness as offensive instead of defensive by India may lead to a miscalculation; misjudging India’s reaction to China’s nuclear actions by Pakistan as a sign of aggression in South Asia could culminate in unfortunate repercussions. In effect, both the actions and the reactions put states in security dilemmas, thus, repeating the cycle. Suffice to say that misinterpreting North Korea’s missile program by neighboring states and the United States and misinterpreting the US-South Korea drills by the North may all aggravate the situation.
DPRK’s nuclear ambition is a result of mistrust and fear of an attack on the regime in power. However, its own very actions have led to a security quagmire and increased tensions within the region and the tendency of abuse of nuclear weapon is very high. Malaysia and DPRK are still arguing over the VX nerve agent saga. China and ROK have not overcome the row over the deployment of the US THAAD. Pyongyang is even suspicious of China’s reaction to its nuclear programs and vice versa. These uncertainties often lead to mutual suspicion and fear and could lead to reciprocal actions and reactions. Even China is likely to factor the ever increasing ICBM success of Pyongyang in upgrading its own nuclear systems and as this happens, India and Pakistan will also join the bandwagon; Japan, ROK, Taiwan and the other Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar would react should their regions become nuclearized.
Undeniably, so long as DPRK continues with its nuclear program, the USA and ROK are unlikely to halt their military drills; great power intrusions in the regions might also increase and issues of geopolitics and geo-economics and balance of power will continue to plague these regions. Thus, the complex security dilemma precipitated by the nuclear power proliferation in these regions is even likely to get murkier so long as DPRK factor lingers