By Leon V. Sigal
April 17, 2012
This report was originally presented at the East Asia Nuclear Security workshop held on November 11, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan. All of the papers and presentations given at the workshop are available here, along with the full agenda, participant list and a workshop photo gallery.
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Leon V. Sigal provides an overview of political prospects for establishing a bilateral Korea-Japan Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ). He notes that such an agreement necessarily raises the question of Japanese and South Korean reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence and “the outcome of any reconsideration thus depends critically on Japanese and South Korean views of North Korea’s nuclear arming, China’s rise, and their historical differences with each other.” Sigal concludes that, while an unbounded North Korean nuclear program could strengthen the nuclear radicals in Tokyo and Seoul who favor nuclear arming, nuclear conservatives in both countries might see heightened advantages in negotiating a NWFZ to help forestall a regional nuclear arms race and improve bilateral relations.
Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York.
The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Nautilus Institute. Readers should note that Nautilus seeks a diversity of views and opinions on significant topics in order to identify common ground.
-“The Politics of a Korea-Japan NWFZ”
by Leon V. Sigal
North Korea has yet to generate more plutonium by restarting its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, shut down as part of an October 2007 six-party agreement, but it could do so in 2012. It has yet to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, but it could continue to close in on that possibility in 2012. It has yet to conduct additional nuclear and missile tests it needs to develop a new warhead it says it has and more reliable missiles to deliver them, but it could do so in 2012.
The only way to prevent Pyongyang from taking these steps is to negotiate in earnest and test whether it is prepared to stop and reverse course.
The time for “strategic patience” is long past. Yet Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have shown little sign of urgency until recently. Instead of engaging in diplomatic give-and-take, they insisted that Pyongyang first satisfy a set of preconditions. Their stance is based on the premise that Pyongyang failed to fulfill its obligations under the October 2007 accord. Yet it was not the first to renege; they were.
If negotiations falter and North Korea expands its missile and warhead arsenal, the strategic situation in Northeast Asia could be fundamentally altered. Already some politicians and strategists in Japan and South Korea are calling for nuclear arming in response. These nuclear radicals are mistaken. Even if North Korea proves unwilling to live up to its commitment in the September 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement to “abandoning its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” conventional weapons, backed by their alliance with the United States, will suffice to deter it. Neither nation needs nuclear weapons for that purpose.
Those who oppose nuclear radicalism in Tokyo and Seoul– nuclear conservatives – need to ask how Tokyo would respond if Seoul developed nuclear weapons, and vice versa.
Pursuing security cooperatively would head off further proliferation in Northeast Asia. A nuclear-weapons-free zone is one possibility worth exploring, starting with Japan and South Korea. It would be preferable to begin negotiations sooner rather than later, because a Japan–South Korea NWFZ could become a much more difficult political proposition in Seoul and Tokyo if the North Korean arsenal expands appreciably.
Consideration of a NWFZ would constitute a decision point for Japan and South Korea to reconsider their own non-nuclear status, much as signing and ratifying the Non-Proliferation Treaty did. A NWFZ intrinsically raises the question of Japanese and South Korean continued reliance on US extended deterrence for their security. The outcome of any reconsideration thus depends critically on Japanese and South Korean views of North Korea’s nuclear arming, China’s rise, and their historical differences with each other. Those views, in turn, depend on domestic political developments in Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
Both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have moved fitfully to forge closer ties with South Korea in recent years. Negotiating a NWFZ with Seoul might advance that prospect, as well as ease fears in Tokyo and Seoul about any latent nuclear ambitions in the other capital.
Washington has been encouraging both countries to improve relations, but if Washington were to take the lead in proposing a NWFZ, it might revive doubts in Japan about relying on the United States for its security. It might even rekindle an urge to nuclear arm, an urge that is prevalent on the right wing of the LDP. In contrast, the prospect of negotiating a NWFZ might strengthen the hand of a sizable group of nuclear conservatives within the DPJ who want to marginalize and stigmatize nuclear weapons and promote a receding role for nuclear threats.
A NWFZ would bring to the fore differences over China policy. The prevailing view in Tokyo is that a rising China does not pose a threat to invade Japan, and absent that threat, its limited nuclear capacity can easily be offset by US conventional deterrence. If Japan were to acquire nuclear arms, nuclear conservatives believe, it could set off a regional arms race, prompting South Korea to reconsider nuclear arming and China to add to its small nuclear arsenal.
That view is contested by Japan’s Gaullists and by right-wing nationalists who favor acquiring nuclear arms. An unbridled North Korean nuclear program, if it were to strengthen the hand of these nuclear radicals, could overturn the prevailing view, with profound implications for the survival of the non-proliferation regime.
Many in both parties harbor suspicions of China’s growing economic and military might and what they see as its new assertiveness on territorial issues. In the DPJ, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko is a case in point. Yet it is not clear that assertiveness is Chinese policy or that the PLA is behind these incidents.
At the same time, many others in both parties want to improve relations with China, though not at the expense of the US alliance. In an interview with the Financial Times on September 16, 2009 shortly after he became foreign minister, Okada Katsuya sketched out the DPJ’s vision for Asian relations:
For Japan, the US is a very important ally and there is no change, in that the US continues to be the most important relationship, not only in security affairs, but also in economic and other affairs. However, seen from our perspective, under the government of the LDP, foreign policy was excessively dependent on the US … Let me cite one example. During the days of the Bush administration, the Japanese government was basically affirmative of the nuclear policy promoted by the Bush administration. But once there was a change over to President Obama, and he preached about a world without nuclear weapons, then the Japanese government turned to praise this new policy as wonderful. This really signified that Japan did not have its own policy. Of course, ultimately, we would like to make sure that the thinking of our two countries coincides as much as possible. But as a premise for that, I want to develop a foreign policy which will be able to convey our own thinking. I would basically like to develop a foreign policy which attaches high importance to Asia. My fundamental thinking is that we would like to secure the peace and prosperity of Asia, and through that achieve peace and prosperity for Japan. We are clearly different from the policies under Prime Minister Koizumi, when there were substantial tensions in the relationships with China and South Korea. If I present such an argument, there is a tendency toward suggestions in Japan that we are perhaps attaching higher importance to Asia than to the US, but that is not what I mean. I am not saying that we have to make a choice between the US and Asia; we want to choose both the US and Asia.
That was decidedly not the view of bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry who were dismissive of the DPJ’s efforts to wrest control of foreign policy and openly contemptuous of its China policy. As the US Embassy reported, Director-General of Asian and Oceanian Affairs Saiki Akitaka told Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell on September 18, 2009,
Regarding DPJ leaders’ call for an “equal relationship” with the US, Saiki confessed that he did not know what was on the minds of Prime Minister Hatoyama and FM Okada, as the bilateral relationship was already equal. Saiki theorized that the DPJ, as an inexperienced ruling party, felt the need to project an image of power and confidence by showing it had Japan’s powerful bureaucrats under control and was in charge of a new and bold foreign policy that challenged the US. Saiki called this way of thinking “stupid” and said “they will learn.”
Saiki predicted that the new administration’s threat to tame the Japanese bureaucracy would end in failure.
Nuclear conservatives in the Foreign and Defense Ministry also resisted changes in nuclear policy favored by the DPJ. During deliberations over the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, they lobbied behind the scenes for the United States to continue to deploy a nuclear-armed cruise missile, the TLAM-N. Foreign Minister Okada disagreed. He wrote a letter to Secretary of State Clinton on December 24, 2009, favoring the TLAM-N’s retirement. At the same Okada called for “ongoing explanations of [US] extended deterrence policy, including any impact this might have on extended deterrence for Japan and how this could be supplemented.” In May 2010 he told the Diet that “a norm not allowing at least first use, or making it illegal to use nuclear weapons against countries not possessing nuclear weapons, should be established.”
In an interview shortly thereafter, Okada made it clear that he favored a NWFZ for Northeast Asia. He noted, however, that even with a NFWZ Japan could continue to rely on US existential deterrence for its security:
I believe that Japan should advocate the following three points: that the states possessing nuclear weapons, the United Statesin particular, should declare no first use; formation of an agreement that it is illegal to use nuclear weapons against countries without nuclear weapons; and, partly overlapping with these two, the initiative of a Northeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone.
If the United States declares no first use, that does not mean that Japan will be completely outside the nuclear umbrella. In a situation where nuclear weapons actually exist in this world, it would be natural that people feel worried about the nuclear umbrella going away.
I talk about going out of the nuclear umbrella halfway, where first use would not be exercised, but in the unfortunate case that Japan suffers a nuclear attack, we are not ruling out a nuclear response to it. We have such an assurance ultimately. So please understand that I am not just talking about an idealistic theory.
Nuclear conservatives in the bureaucracy opposed his stance. North American Affairs Director-General Umemoto Kazuyoshi was undiplomatically blunt in a November 5, 2009 meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Campbell. The US Embassy reported, “DG Umemoto said he had persuaded FM Okada ‘not to pick a fight’ with the United States on nuclear issues, especially regarding negative security assurances and no-first use, during the President’s visit.”
On one issue Umemoto was prepared to defer to the DPJ’s sensibilities – and President Barack Obama’s. Rising concern about North Korea’s nuclear program had prompted ritual US reassurances about extended deterrence, but when Campbell asked if Japan expected such a statement by Obama, “DG Umemoto responded that the Japanese government assumed the US commitment to extended deterrence was unchanged. Moreover, the current political leadership in Japan was less focused on this issue compared to the previous administration. While PM Hatoyama would undoubtedly welcome a statement of assurance from the President during the meeting, it was not something the Japanese government was requesting, either during the meeting or in public comments.”
US eagerness to reassure Japan is driven by the desire to foreclose the alternative of nuclear arming. Japan has substantial quantities of plutonium and the nuclear know-how to weaponize it, as well as the missile technology to deliver nuclear warheads. Yet it has refrained from taking that fateful step.
Japanese leaders have publicly broached the issue of nuclear arming whenever the US security commitment was called into question. Prime Minister Sato Eisaku did so in 1965. DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro did so in 2002 during a visit to Beijing. In 2003, Yabunaka Mitoji, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, did so implicitly when he urged James Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “to make sure the United States does not again promise not to use its nuclear weapons against North Korea if Pyongyang agrees to dismantle its nuclear development program.” Foreign Minister Aso Taro and LDP Policy Chief Nakagawa Shoichi did so in the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test.
On several occasions when nuclear diplomacy with North Korea was faltering, Japanese officials have also raised the possibility of nuclear arming to prod the United States, and perhaps China, into getting serious about negotiations. In 1993, when North Korea gave notice of its intent to renounce the NPT, for example, Foreign Minister Muto Kabun said pointedly that “if North Korea develops nuclear weapons and that becomes a threat to Japan, first there is the nuclear umbrella of the United Statesupon which we can rely. But if it comes to a crunch, possessing the will that ‘we can do it ourselves’ is important.”
The risk that the Japanese might “do it” was a key argument used by Secretary of State Colin Powell in trying to persuade China to arrange three-party talks in 2003 after North Korea resumed plutonium operations at Yongbyon.
The risk of Japan’s nuclear arming is especially unlikely now. The post-Fukushima backlash against nuclear power will color Japanese attitudes toward nuclear weapons as well. The irony is that nuclear power was first promoted in Japan in the 1950s partly in hopes of inoculating the country against its anti-nuclear allergy. Now the fallout from Fukushima is likely to silence advocates of nuclear arming.
A bilateral NWFZ may require nuclear assurances from China, as well as Russia. Of what value would those assurances be? China has a stated policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. Its small nuclear arsenal and its nuclear posture suggest that it means what it says. Yet China’s nuclear capabilities are likely to grow in the coming years, driven by an accelerating arms race in South Asia. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is growing substantially and India is sure to match it. That, in turn, will drive expansion of China’s stockpile. Meanwhile, Russia’s nuclear capability is in decline, but it has moved in recent years to reemphasize the role of nuclear weapons in its defense posture and is gradually replacing obsolescent systems. Without commitments from China and Russia to forego nuclear threats or use, a NWFZ with South Korea may be much more difficult to sell in Tokyo.
Another consideration in Japan’s decision whether to negotiate a NWFZ with South Korea is whether it would ease Beijing’s concern about further proliferation in the region and thus reduce its willingness to play a prominent role in trying to broker North Korea’s denuclearization. As important a consideration as that may be, it would be wrong to overestimate China’s influence with North Korea.
Both the DPJ and LDP have moved to forge closer ties with South Korea in the past few years. Negotiating a NWFZ with Seoul might advance that prospect as well as ease fears in Seoul about any latent nuclear ambitions in Tokyo.
History haunts South Korea’s relations with Japan. Memories of that unhappy history recur every time a prominent Japanese politician visits Yasukuni shrine or a revision of its history textbooks falls short of full reckoning with Japan’s decades-long occupation of Korea.
History also haunts South Korea’s nuclear policy. Twice Seoul had moved to make nuclear weapons only to have the United States induce it to stop. Unease about the US security guarantee prompted both efforts – the first in response to the promulgation of the Nixon Doctrine in 1974 and the second in reaction to President Jimmy Carter’s stated intention to withdraw US troops from the peninsula in 1976.
Seoul was persuaded to call off these efforts by US warnings that they would put the alliance in jeopardy, as well as, in the first instance, by adoption of a more aggressive US operational plan for defending Korea with conventional forces and, in the second, by cancellation of the proposed US troop withdrawal.
Similarly, the US decision in September 1991 to withdraw all its nuclear weapons from South Korea did occasion initial concern in Seoul, but did not lead the center-right government of Roh Tae-woo to revive nuclear arming. Quite the contrary, it prompted Seoul to reach an agreement with Pyongyang on the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula banning reprocessing and enrichment, as well as the possession, testing, and storing of nuclear weapons.
Yet enrichment experiments conducted in the 1990s, not reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency as required under safeguards, did little to allay concern.
Now, Seoul is pressing to revise its Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with Washingtonto allow it to reprocess spent fuel from its nuclear power plants. In public it argues that reprocessing is necessary because it has no place to store spent fuel and that transporting it abroad is expensive, but in private the South Koreans make a different case. In a luncheon meeting with US Ambassador Kathleen Stephens on February 17, 2010, Vice Foreign Minister Chun Young-woo “asserted that revising the CNCA could, in time, become a ‘defining issue’ in ROK-US relations.” He said conservatives strongly believe the ROK unfairly forfeited its right to reprocess spent fuel by signing the 1992 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The US Embassy reporting cable continued:
The issue, he warned, was already drawing significant amounts of negative press attention and attracting “grandstanding politicians” like Liberty Forward leader Lee Hoi-chang, who earlier in the day had publicly lectured a MOFAT Director-General about the need to “regain our nuclear sovereignty.” The ROK was now one of world’s top five nuclear power producers/users; other members of that “club,” including Japan, all had the capability to reprocess spent fuel. Public opinion would not tolerate Korea being discriminated against vis-a-vis Japan, Chun emphasized.
If more than prestige was at stake, Chun did not say, but South Korea’s conservatives have long harbored suspicions about Japan’s nuclear intentions and some want reprocessing as a hedge.
Negotiations on a NWFZ could address the reprocessing issue. One possibility is that South Korea could agree to ship its spent fuel to Japan for reprocessing. That could be accompanied by South Korean monitoring of Japan’s reprocessing facility. More far-reaching cooperation might involve joint operation of the facility and its evolution into a regional reprocessing center.
In recent years, a few politicians on the right in Seoul have openly questioned the US commitment to South Korea’s security. Some have sought the return of US nuclear arms to Korean soil, ignoring the fact that these arms had not been part of US war plans for some time prior to their withdrawal and that they were vulnerable to being seized by North Korean special operations forces, forcing US planners to divert troops to protect them. Other Korean politicians – the nuclear radicals – even called for an indigenous nuclear weapons program to counter the North’s nuclear arming. Still others have expressed worries about Japan’s nuclear intentions and suggested that the South hedge its bets.
Nuclear conservatives in South Korea might see advantages in negotiating a NWFZ with Japan if they felt that would help forestall a nuclear arms race in the region. A bilateral NWFZ would ease worries about nuclear arming by Japan and enhancement of China’s capabilities. But again, commitments by China and Russia to forgo nuclear use or threats of use against them might prove essential to win political support from South Korean conservatives, and those commitments would, in turn, depend on a reciprocal commitment from the United States.
Would Washington be willing to provide such a commitment? President Obama has lent strong rhetorical support to reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons in the world. More significant than the lofty rhetoric of his Prague speech, Obama has taken some practical steps, most notably, intervening to alter a draft Nuclear Posture Review that the nuclear priesthood in the US bureaucracy attempted to foist on him. The new US declaratory policy includes a strengthened negative security assurance:
With the advent of US conventional military preeminence and continued improvements in US missile defenses and capabilities to counter and mitigate the effects of CBW, the role of US nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks – conventional, biological, or chemical – has declined significantly. The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. To that end, the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing “negative security assurance” by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.
No longer was the United States to plan for nuclear retaliation for other than nuclear attack on itself or its allies:
In making this strengthened assurance, the United States affirms that any state eligible for the assurance that uses chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response – and that any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders, would be held fully accountable.
This statement, while it marks a significant advance in US declaratory policy, stops short of first use or the alternative formulation proposed by some, “The US maintains nuclear weapons to deter, and if necessary, respond to nuclear attacks against itself, its forces, or its friends and allies.” Yet the Posture Review prefigures further changes in policy:
The United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United Statesor our allies and partners the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons.
That language acknowledges the receding role for nuclear arms in US defense strategy. Yet Republican gains in the 2010 election slowed completion of a “follow-on analysis to set goals for future nuclear reductions below the levels expected in New START,” which was supposed to be completed after the Senate ratified the treaty.
Contrast the Obama language with the expansive view of nuclear requirement contemplated in the 2002 Nuclear Policy Review completed under President George W. Bush:
In setting requirements for nuclear strike capabilities, distinctions can be made among the contingencies for which the United States must be prepared. Contingencies can be categorized as immediate, potential or unexpected. Immediate contingencies involve well-recognized current dangers … Current examples of immediate contingencies include an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbors, a North Korean attack on South Korea, or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan.
The implications of the shift from Bush to Obama forNorth Koreawere explicit. It usefully jettisoned the Vance exception, announced by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament on June 12, 1978, which says,
The United States will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapons state party to the NPT … except in the case of an attack on the US, its territories or armed forces, or its allies, by such a state allied to a nuclear weapons state, or associated with a nuclear weapons state in carrying out or sustaining the attack.
The exception applied to members of the Warsaw Pact and, of course, to North Korea, then allied with the Soviet Union and China. In the words of the Obama Nuclear Posture Review,
This revised assurance is intended to underscore the security benefits of adhering to and fully complying with the NPT and persuade non-nuclear weapon states party to the Treaty to work with the United Statesand other interested parties to adopt effective measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime. … In the case of countries not covered by this assurance – states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations – there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which US nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.
The language strongly implies that even in the case of North Korea, while the United States was not foreswearing the use of nuclear weapons, it was not threatening to use them either.
What does the Obama Nuclear Posture review suggest about the administration’s willingness to entertain a Japan-South Korea NWFZ? Washington has historically been decidedly unenthusiastic about NWFZs in other geographic areas, out of concern that they impair its freedom of action. For instance, when establishment of an African NWFZ was under negotiation, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations balked at providing a negative security assurance to signatories. The Obama administration, to judge from its formal statement to the NPT Review Conference, remains noncommittal at best.
Fiscal realities will shape US policy and color Asian perceptions in the coming years. Substantial cuts in the defense budget could lead to cuts in conventional forces, perhaps a reduction in a division of ground troops and elimination of a carrier battle group. Anticipating such cuts, some in Asia are questioning the US commitment to Asian security, which could impede prospects for a NWFZ. In an effort to allay Republican opposition to ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the Senate, the Obama administration increased spending for the nuclear weapons laboratories. Some Republicans are now seeking to rescind that increase.
The prospect of Republican opposition is also likely to make President Obama wary of taking on challenging nuclear initiatives like a NWFZ for South Korea and Japan, especially if that requires a commitment not to use nuclear weapons against China and Russia. If Tokyo and Seoul were to take the lead in the negotiating a NWFZ, that might make it easier for Washington to go along.
A NWFZ: A Wise Course for Nuclear Conservativism
Nuclear conservatives remain a dominant political force in Japan and South Korea for now. An unbounded North Korean nuclear program could strengthen the nuclear radicals in Tokyo and Seoul who favor nuclear arming. Negotiating a bilateral NWFZ would head them off and facilitate reconciliation between these countries despite their troubled history. Nuclear conservatives would be prudent to consider that.
 I.A.E.A., Report of the Director-General to the Board, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement to the ROK,” November 11, 2004; Pierre Goldschmidt, “Safeguards Noncompliance: A Challenge for the IAEA and the UN Security Council,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2010); Jungmin Kang, Peter Hayes, Li Bin, Tatsujiro Suzuki, and Richard Tanter, “South Korea’s Nuclear Surprise,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2005, pp. 40-49.
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