SOUTH KOREA'S Foreign Minister, Han Sung Joo, travelled to the United States yesterday to discuss the North Korean nuclear threat as East Asia began to realise that it stands on the brink of a deadly nuclear arms race. Voices are already being raised in Seoul calling for South Korea to develop its own nuclear deterrent, and Japan has both the plutonium and the technical expertise to go nuclear overnight if it decided to do so.
The immediate tension between the two Koreas over the north's withdrawal two weeks ago from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) has relaxed after Pyongyang began a series of talks with the US embassy in Peking. But with most military experts now agreed that North Korea has developed its own nuclear capability, the threat to the region is only just beginning.
'It is not over,' said Mr Han in a briefing to journalists last week. North Korea's defiance of international nuclear inspections was something 'that could lead to very serious consequences in the future'.
Others were more forthright. 'If North Korea has gone nuclear, then South Korea must be under irresistible pressure to go nuclear as well and then Japan will follow,' said Professor Kim Dal Choong, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. 'There is an assumption among many people in the South Korean military that if peace between the US and the USSR was based on (nuclear) deterrence, then the same balance could obtain in Korea.'
Some of South Korea's politicians agree. In parliament last week, Kang Chang Sung of the opposition Democratic Party said that South Korea should have its own 'independent' capability to develop nuclear weapons. South Korea did begin such a nuclear programme in the 1970s, but was stopped by the US for the same reasons that now have people so worried about North Korea: the level of mutual distrust in the region.
North and South Korea have been in an unresolved state of hostilities since the end of the Korean war in 1953. Both Koreas have bitter memories of Japan's brutal attempt to colonise the peninsula from 1910-45. China has similar memories of Japanese atrocities. At the same time Taiwan and China are engaged in their own arms race. There is no security treaty, no equivalent of Nato or the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, and not even a system for regular consultations on security issues to mitigate such historical animosities.
Yesterday the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, opposed United Nations sanctions against North Korea if it carried out its threat to withdraw from the NPT. He said the matter 'would only be complicated' if it was referred to the Security Council, and should be settled by 'patient negotiation'.
All this mutual distrust could lead to a disastrous vicious circle, where no one in East Asia wants to be the odd one out without nuclear weapons. No doubt, in his role as South Korea's Foreign Minister, Mr Han will be airing such fears with US leaders in Washington, since the US is the only military power capable of acting as a referee amidst Asian animosities.Reuse content