Millions of Americans own a gun. About four in 10 U.S. households, in fact, have at least one firearm. People own guns for all sorts of reasons, but a major reason is the sense of safety and security a firearm can offer in what seems like an increasingly hostile world. Many Americans rely on law enforcement for security. But, as the saying goes, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.
Let’s extend the analogy to geopolitics. Japan and South Korea find themselves under increasing threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea. While the United States will always respect its treaty commitments, those North Korean missiles will find their targets in Japan and South Korea much more readily than any U.S. territory, including Guam. So in the face of an increasingly hostile Pyongyang, it would make sense for Seoul and Tokyo to develop their own self-defense capabilities.
Right now, analysts estimate North Korea will have fully functional nuclear weapons capability within 18 months. In the meantime, North Korea continues to test fire missiles over the Sea of Japan. And, of course, it still maintains tens of thousands of pieces of conventional artillery pointed south of the 38th parallel. The only thing that will keep the North in check is force—or the credible threat thereof.
That suggests Japan and South Korea not only need anti-ballistic missile defense systems but, more importantly, a proper nuclear deterrent of their own.
I don’t make this case lightly. Nuclear weapons are the most destructive devices mankind has ever devised. The United States has long sought to prevent nuclear proliferation. But those days are coming to an end. It no longer makes sense for the United States to carry so much of the world’s defense burden. As with gun owners in America, responsible actors should be allowed to defend themselves with all available means against their irresponsible enemies.
President Trump has said on more than one occasion he would favor Japan and South Korea having a nuclear deterrent. The Trump Administration would do well to make it clear to our Japanese and South Korean allies that they need to take on a greater share of their defenses.
Greater Wealth, Greater Burden
Of course, this raises the question: do South Korea and Japan want their own nuclear weapons?
Postwar Japan has maintained a constitutional prohibition against developing nukes (and almost any offensive military capability), and the country has adopted pacifism as public policy. Memories of Japanese militarism remain fresh in the region—until recently, few of Japan’s neighbors would welcome news of that country’s rearmament with anything other than horror. Koreans in particular remember the ravages that Japan’s imperial army inflicted on them—and their women especially.
Meanwhile, South Korea has relied primarily on the United States for its defenses over the past six decades due largely to the exigencies of the Cold War. The South Korean government and military has always been hesitant to push their neighbors too far. Military analysts have long predicted that Seoul would be incinerated in the first 30 minutes of renewed hostilities.
Times change, however—and so do circumstances.
Japan and South Korea are both global economic powers. Today, Japan boasts the third-largest economy in the world, while South Korea ranks 12th. Both have the wealth and the technological know-how to take on a greater share of their own defense, to say nothing of the ability to develop nuclear weapons in short order.
What’s more, South Korea has a modern, sophisticated conventional military. Although Seoul does pick up some of the expense of stationing U.S. troops there, the fact remains that most of the burden falls to the American taxpayer—to say nothing of the American servicemen and women whose lives would be sacrificed to defend the South against a North Korean attack. The least that South Korea could do is to take up most of the military burden by fully developing their own capabilities—even if it risks retaliation from the North.
Should We Fear Japan?
As for Japan, there has been in recent years a growing nationalist sentiment that questions the utility—not to mention the morality—of maintaining a tiny defense force under the U.S. defense umbrella as North Korea and China become more aggressive and expansionist.
Only nuclear deterrence (as well as a functional anti-ballistic missile defense system) can guarantee Japan’s safety. While Kim Jong-un is most certainly an irrational actor, he wouldn’t likely act as provocatively as he has if he understood that North Korea’s historical nemesis had the means to retaliate decisively. And it’s a rather open question as to whether a fully rearmed Japan would pose the same threat to the Western Pacific in the 21st century that Imperial Japan posed in the 1930s and ’40s.
Redefining the U.S. Role
Placing a nuclear deterrent in the hands of Japan and South Korea would not relieve the United States of all responsibilities in the Pacific. But it would change those responsibilities significantly—and to our long-term benefit.
America could assume a more diplomatic role, similar to China, stepping in as an “honest broker” to cool tensions among nations in the region.
The fact is, the Cold War is long over. So, too, is the prospect of American unipolar dominance of the sort that we enjoyed for a short period after the fall of the Soviet Union. While America remains a first among equals in terms of military and economic power globally, the world has changed. Other powers have risen. In the case of Japan and South Korea, the United States has two very powerful and capable of allies. Let them assume greater responsibility for their defense—and take greater control of their own destinies. It would be in America’s best interest.
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