U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said in a lecture on Friday that if talks to denuclearize North Korea fail, countries in Asia including South Korea and Japan will demand nuclear armament. Citing former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s remarks “If efforts to denuclearize North Korea fail, the world will come to face the challenge of proliferation of nuclear weapons across the entire Asia region,” Biegun said that Asian allies shelved nuclear programs due to their trust in Washington’s deterrence of nuclear proliferation, but if threat continues, they will begin to ask if they need to be considering their own nuclear capabilities.
The scenario of “nuclear domino” stemming from the North’s nuclear armament is nothing new. As the U.S.-North Koreas negotiations stalled, the U.S. Congress and experts have urged not only redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula but also sharing of nuclear weapons with South Korea and Japan. The latest remarks have been made by a senior Trump administration official and Washington’s chief negotiator for North Korean denuclearization talks, whom Pyongyang has been relatively friendly with. The remarks cannot be taken lightly, since they constitute a warning that even Washington cannot insist forever on a policy to block the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the face of growing threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
Biegun’s statement also reminds “the idea of South Korea and Japan’s nuclear armament,” which President Donald Trump mentioned during the 2016 presidential election. The Trump administration has been denying the (U.S.’) role of “global police” and is thoroughly pursuing the “realism of America first,” which requires countries to take responsibility for their own regional security. Some pundits in the U.S. already suggested “offshore balancing” strategy, in which Washington would allow Seoul and Tokyo to seek nuclear armament as measures of checks and balance to counter China’s military rise as well as the North’s nuclear threat.
The idea of Asia’s nuclear armament is targeted at not only North Korea but also China, which stands behind it. It is implicit pressure on China, which is extremely opposed to the domino nuclear armament in Northeast Asia, indicating that if Beijing blindly seeks to back Pyongyang, China will end up being surrounded by countries armed with nuclear weapons. Biegun even suggested a deadline, saying that significant progress should be made within a year. The timeline is very tight for the parties to be able to conduct practical negotiations, reach agreement, and achieve practical denuclearization, and Washington cannot afford to wait further. It is time that China should take action in order to avoid a nightmare that will become a reality sooner rather than later.