Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What a Nuclear North Korea Could Mean for SE Asia

If North Korea is allowed to continue producing nuclear weapons, it could be only a matter of time before SE Asia becomes the most nuclear-weapon infested region of the world. Here’s why.

Supposing that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is allowed to stand, the Myanmar government will likely follow suit: perceiving the acquisition of WMD to be in the regime’s own self interest, it will attempt to acquire some nuclear weapons of its own. Nuclear weapons would give the Burmese military dictatorship a measure of security and international respect that it could not otherwise achieve, at a relatively low cost. Of all countries in the world, it may well be Myanmar that stands the most to gain and -- more importantly -- stands the least to lose by acquiring nuclear weapons.

We should expect that Myanmar junta will attempt to buy nuclear weapons -- or the technology necessary to assemble some -- from North Korea. If you consider that Myanmar and North Korea are natural allies and that both these “rouge states” have strong pre-existing commercial and military ties, this is not a possibility one can easily rule out. (In a world that had already allowed North Korea to get away with manufacturing nuclear weapons, what would the North Korean regime stand to lose by selling such weapons or their technology to Myanmar?) Given the very nature of power politics, attempts by Myanmar to buy North Korean nukes are not an unlikely development should the production of nuclear weapons by cash-strapped North Korea be permitted to continue. Now let us consider the consequences.

If Myanmar were to go nuclear, it is very likely that Thailand will feel it necessary to have a nuclear weapons program. Burma, after all, is the historic enemy of Thailand. Put quite simply, Thais might well decide it is a matter of national pride to acquire MWD of their own, apart from any legitimate security concerns.

And if Thailand went nuclear, Malaysia would feel justified in acquiring the bomb. If Malaysia develops a nuclear weapons program, Singapore would surely follow suit. And if Singapore and Malaysia go down that road, Indonesia would likely feel the need to acquire some as well. Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia would feel fully justified in acquiring nuclear weapons technology and materials from Pakistan (or in the not so distant future from Iran or Saudi Arabia). And of course, if Indonesia had nuclear weapons, neighboring Australia would not have any second thoughts about going nuclear.

A bleak scenario to be sure, but one that is not beyond the realm of possibility in a world that is prepared to live with a North Korean regime armed with nuclear weapons; especially in a world in which North Korea is permitted to engage in their continued production.

This dangerous chain reaction may hinge upon one other factor: Japan getting the bomb. If the Japanese decide to go nuclear, this could signal to governments throughout the Asia Pacific region a monumental shift in Japan's perception of US commitment to the region. Japan going nuclear is likely to be interpreted -- perhaps misinterpreted -- as Japan no longer feeling itself able to trust that the US will guarantee its security against attack from North Korea or China. The long term consequence of Japan getting its own nukes will be that Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam (with its historic animosity towards China), Australia, and South Korea will ask themselves: if the most important US ally in Asia – Japan – no longer puts its trusts in the US nuclear umbrella, why should we? And the provocation that is most likely to drive middling Southeast Asia powers into the nuclear camp would be the acquisition of a North Korea made nuclear weapon by Myanmar.

This depressing scenario shows why a strong US presence in Asia is absolutely necessary for the foreseeable future. And why the present-day contentment in the region at the sight of the relative decline in US power is gravely misplaced. The only powers that could conceivably fulfill the US role in the region – China, India, and Japan – are either too weak or far too distrusted by the other regional powers to serve as a guarantor of security. There is simply no good alternative in Asia to Pax Americana.

>I hope this discussion makes three things apparent: 1) American engagement in the region is necessary for the indefinite future; 2) Japan must be dissuaded from going nuclear; 3) North Korea’s nuclear weapons program absolutely cannot be allowed to continue. However, these three measures do not, in themselves, constitute a solution to the most pressing underling issue: nuclear proliferation. How to achieve a realistic resolution to this looming world crisis is to be the subject of a future posting.

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