Are nuclear weapons the ultimate bargaining chip? Yes. Just ask North Korea
Some thoughtful people are scratching their heads about the standoff over North Korea's clandestine nuclear weapons development programme. They point out that by the early 1990s, it was believed Pyongyang already had one or two nuclear warheads. They note that the fundamental strategic calculus has not changed: North Korea's use of those weapons would mean the end of the regime and the state as it currently exists. In other words, deterrence still works.
Finally, they argue that the United States has said it will not attack North Korea, and Pyongyang knows attacking the South would be suicidal, so the risk of a nuclear war is nonexistent.
If so, then why the big fuss? It is because the crisis threatens to expose as a myth an idea that has served as the foundation of international order. Since the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty came into effect, governments have maintained that nuclear weapons have no real use; thus, there was no point in developing such arms - and wasting all that money - if they had no real value. And if such weapons have no purpose, then giving them up, in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology (which is part of the nonproliferation treaty) was easy. But if they do have value, then the bargain starts to look lopsided.
The danger is that the North Korean crisis shows such weapons do indeed have value. North Korea has been caught cheating on its international obligations, has chemical and biological arms, is a known missile proliferator and has been tied to terrorism and criminal activities in the past. Iraq is suspected of many of those things, but hard evidence is lacking. And yet, war drums are beating in the Middle East, while the US plays down the military option on the Korean peninsula.
Someone like Kim Jong-il could be forgiven for looking at the US responses to the North Korean and Iraq situations and concluding that it is only the North Korean claim that it already has such weapons that has forced the Bush administration to favour a diplomatic solution.
The Bush administration has seemingly endorsed that logic by arguing that Baghdad has to be stopped before it develops weapons of mass destruction and uses them to its advantage. The dangers do not stop there. While the risk of undermining the entire non-proliferation order is a fairly abstract one, there are more concrete concerns. The immediate risk is the destabilisation of Northeast Asian security. At a minimum, governments in Seoul and Tokyo would have new doubts about the ability of the US to manage regional security affairs.
While it is unlikely South Korea and Japan would decide that a nuclear-armed North Korea would require a similar move on their part, either government could decide that such a response was justified. The very unlikely prospect of Japan going nuclear would change the security calculus in Beijing as well. Rising insecurity in China would be felt elsewhere. In less guarded moments, Indian leaders admit their nuclear weapons programme has been driven more by the perceived threat from China than by that from Pakistan. If China expanded its nuclear arsenal, then India's deterrence threshold could rise as well. That might prompt a similar response in Islamabad, unleashing another arms spiral in South Asia.
It is unclear how US thinking would change in the event of widespread nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia. The chief issue is how Washington's allies would regard the US presence on their territory if they had nuclear capabilities. South Koreans might view the US presence as more vital than ever, since a nuclear standoff with the North would enhance the value of conventional forces.
If the Japanese took the nuclear option, the most likely result would be a reworking of the US-Japan security alliance.
It is tempting to dismiss these dangers as merely theoretical. However, the risks are real, and if any of these scenarios were to be realised, the costs would be high. It is vital, then, that the world recork the nuclear genie.
That requires two steps. The first, and most immediate, is addressing North Korean concerns without providing support for the view that nuclear weapons have a political use. In particular, nuclear blackmail has to be exposed for what it is. The international community should ensure Pyongyang is not rewarded for cheating on its obligations.
Given the impact of nuclear proliferation on the entire region's security, that is not unreasonable. When Pyongyang is ready to accept those responsibilities, the US should be prepared to discuss security guarantees.
Another part of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty was the agreement by the nations with nuclear weapons - the US, China, Russia, Britain and France - to shrink their arsenals and eventually move towards a world free of such weapons. But the readiness of those states to cling to and modernise their nuclear arsenals suggests they serve a purpose after all. Thus, as a second step, the nuclear nations need to cut their arsenals, significantly, verifiably and irrevocably.
Progress towards a world free of nuclear weapons is the only way to strengthen the belief that they serve no purpose. After all, myths are only persuasive when everyone shares them.
Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank