By Ivan Eland
The blatantly aggressive invasion of Ukraine by Russia, complete with apparent war crimes, has shaken up world politics—especially in faraway East Asia. Russia, in an attempt to recover from an initially bungled invasion of Ukraine, is making nuclear threats to try to attenuate U.S. and Western assistance to that nation. Thus, the thinking is that China or North Korea might also rely on such weapons to try to similarly shield an aggressive invasion of a non-nuclear country in East Asia.
A recent poll in South Korea showed more than 70 percent of South Koreans support their government getting nuclear weapons. Although South Korea has a very good conventional military by world standards, much better than its arch-rival North Korea, the North Koreans have nuclear weapons. Pressure is building in South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons because of fears that the United States’ “extended deterrence” (using its nuclear weapons to protect its ally South Korea) might be unreliable if North Korea invaded South Korea.
As it gets longer range missiles to deliver nuclear weapons, North Korea could invade South Korea and threaten the United States’ cities and military bases in the Pacific with nuclear holocaust if it came to the South’s assistance. Stupidly, during the debate in South Korea about whether to make a drive for nuclear weapons, North Korea warned that it would use its nuclear arsenal “at the outset of war” with the South. Also in South Korea’s neighborhood, China and Russia also have nuclear weapons and could possibly turn unfriendly.
However, the U.S. government fears that if South Korea built nuclear weapons, any hope of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula would evaporate. In addition, the United States is apprehensive that a nuclear South Korea could start a nuclear arms race in the East Asian region.
Taiwan, nervous about an attack from an increasingly nationalist China and without the mutual defense treaty South Korea has with the United States, likely is thinking similar thoughts as the South Koreans. And maybe even the more pacifist Japan—which has a mutual defense treaty with the United States, but also has difficult relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and even South Korea—might be having nuclear daydreams.
Instead of obtaining nuclear weapons, at least one senior South Korean official has proposed enhancing extended deterrence by the United States reaching a nuclear-sharing agreement with South Korea similar to the one enjoyed by NATO nations. Under such an arrangement, if a war broke out, South Korean aircraft would be allowed to carry U.S. nuclear weapons.
This proposal is the wrong way to go. The United States should learn the right lesson from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not the wrong one. It is true that Ukraine was invaded because it was not a member of NATO. However, despite the awful nature of the aggressive and heinous Russian invasion, at the end of the day, Ukraine is not strategically vital to the United States, and President Joe Biden, despite President Volodymyr Zelensky’s valiant and understandable effort to shame America into doing more to help him, has no obligation to do so.
The United States, now $30 trillion in debt, foolishly has assumed the burden of defending relatively wealthy far-forward states near Russia—for example, Poland, Romania, and the Baltics—and in East Asia, especially South Korea, Japan, and informally Taiwan. Whenever a severe security crisis occurs, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all such states make it known they are nervous that U.S. extended deterrence will not hold. These states, and others in Pax Americana, should be apprehensive, because when war with any nuclear power is afoot, would the United States sacrifice Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago to save Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei?
In a time when the financially strapped United States should be thinking about a more modest security posture in the world, it should allow South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. The arms race did not start with them, it started with the pariah state North Korea getting nuclear weapons. The U.S. fantasy of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula has long been a mirage because North Korea will never give up its growing nuclear arsenal.
South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have been responsible players in the international system for some time now and would likely be good stewards of nuclear weapons. However, the price for the United States allowing them to obtain such arms would be to abrogate all U.S. security guarantees. In the longer term, after the Ukraine crisis has passed, the United States should even rethink defending NATO countries. The Russian military has already proven it is a hollow shell; Europe already has Britain and France, two countries with a nuclear deterrent to counter the Russian one; and the wealthy European Union had five times the GDP of Russia, even before recent Western economic sanctions have devastated it, thus allowing Europe to amply defend itself without a U.S. nuclear and conventional umbrella.
This article was also published in The American Conservative
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.