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Jakarta Post

What can we do when Japan, South Korea go nuclear?

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, November 21, 2019   /   09:14 am
What can we do when Japan, South Korea go nuclear? A man watches a television news screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on July 31, 2019. Pyongyang fired two ballistic missiles on July 31, Seoul said, days after a similar launch that the nuclear-armed North described as a warning to the South over planned joint military drills with the United States. (AFP/Jung Yeon-je )

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is famous for his lack of interest in foreign affairs but when he attends the special ASEAN-South Korea summit in Busan next week, he needs to remember that the danger of nuclear war will no longer just come from North Korea, but also from the regional grouping’s key partners: South Korea and Japan.

China’s rising military and economic power should also be anticipated as countries in Southeast Asia do not know yet how to deal, correctly and effectively, with the world’s second-largest economy.

Dear fellow Indonesians, you may laugh because this conclusion comes only from an ordinary citizen but nuclear war may not be a thing of fiction seen only in Hollywood or Bollywood movies anymore. It is a real and present danger now.

President Jokowi is slated to attend the ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit in Busan from Nov. 25 to 27. As South Korean President Moon Jae-in wrote in the Nov. 18 edition of The Jakarta Post, ASEAN is a top priority under his government’s “southward policy”.

Last year, Jokowi advised President Moon to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the commemorative summit, amid growing hopes that Kim would achieve significant progress in his meetings with United States President Donald Trump. Moon, who has worked very hard and diligently to win Kim’s trust, said he would consider Jokowi’s idea.

Kim, however, will not go to Busan. So, during the summit, I strongly urge President Jokowi to talk heart-to-heart with President Moon and the other nine ASEAN leaders about whether Seoul will build its own nuclear power for military purposes.

In his article, President Moon wrote, ”Since peace on the Korean Peninsula is closely related to stability throughout East Asia, I believe ASEAN member states that have actively helped advance peace through dialogue and mutual understanding over the past decades will also join in the journey toward establishing permanent peace on the peninsula as reliable friends and advisers.”

Trump has repeatedly demanded that South Korea and Japan — as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states — pay much higher military protection fees and accept US trade concessions. Reuters reported on Tuesday that visiting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told his South Korean counterpart that Seoul should pay much more for the US military service. The new price tag has reportedly jumped by five times to US$5 billion per year, which will cover the cost of stationing 28,500 US troops in South Korea.

The increase means Trump would allow at least two things to happen. First, he would let North Korea’s nuclear threat persist and second, he would pave the way for South Korea, as well as Japan, to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Such a possibility comes as no surprise. During the presidential campaign in 2016, Trump made it clear that he was open to the idea of South Korea and Japan — probably also other nations, except Iran — having their own nuclear arsenal.

Trump has repeatedly told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japan has to pay much higher fees for the US military protection it has provided since the end of World War II. Apart from that, Trump has threatened more retaliatory trade actions against Japan, with whom the US suffers a huge trade deficit. Abe has privately talked to Trump more than 30 times, but for Trump it is only a matter of business deals.

Now that Trump is demanding too much, it is the right time for South Korea to build its own nuclear defense system, at least for economic reasons. The nuclear defense might be much cheaper and more resilient than relying on US protection, especially because Trump is likely to stay at the White House until 2025.

It is simply unrealistic to expect Kim to drop his aggressive nuclear weapons development because that is the only way for him to survive. Initially, Kim hoped that Trump would end the United Nations economic sanctions when he followed Trump’s denuclearization proposals in their two meetings in Singapore in June last year and in Hanoi in June this year. It turns out Trump does not mind Kim carrying on with his nuclear ambitions.

Going nuclear is tempting for Moon and Abe alike if Trump realizes his repeated threats to withdraw US troops from East Asia. So it would not be surprising if South Korea and Japan went nuclear. They know very well the nuclear history of Pakistan and India.

The danger of a nuclear arms race in East Asia is becoming more evident now. Southeast Asia can no longer stick to its long-standing belief that the region is safe because it sits quite a distance from East Asia. It is just a technical matter for Japan and South Korea to join the nuclear club.

ASEAN can no longer maintain its passive mode concerning peace in the Korean Peninsula and Trump’s dangerous game. Nuclear threats are looming in Asia but what ASEAN should do to eliminate the threat, honestly I just don't know.