It’s hard to overstate the importance of the proposed talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. If they come off (still an "if" despite all the hoopla) and if they succeed (an even bigger if), they could defang North Korea’s nuclear threat and avert a war that has seemed more possible in recent months than at any time in decades.
If they fail, the future looks considerably less pretty. Increased tension and risk of war is one dire and obvious possible consequence, but subtler troubles could also ensue. American Farmers don’t export to North Korea, but their exports to such major nearby markets as China, Japan and South Korea give them ample reason to care about these talks. For the subtler casualties of failed talks could include weakened ties with these markets, in particular Japan.
During his presidential campaign, Trump urged Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons. He has, thankfully, not said anything along those lines since taking office. But if the Trump-Kim talks fail and North Korea keeps its nukes, both countries--and maybe others in Asia--could feel compelled to develop their own https://www.nytimes.com/…
Japan and South Korea could do that within a year--if they wanted to. Both countries have the necessary technological capacity and, thanks to years of operating nuclear power plants, the necessary stockpiles of plutonium. They’ve chosen not to build their own nuclear bombs because they’ve felt secure under the U.S. military umbrella. The question is whether they will continue to feel secure.
North Korea’s newfound ability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons has shaken their trust in our willingness to protect them. South Koreans are particularly concerned, with polls last year showing 60% support for the country having its own nukes. The South Koreans worry that the U.S. might not defend them against a North Korean invasion out of fear that Pyongyang would fire nuclear missiles at Los Angeles or Washington.
There’s very little support in Japan for building nukes but that might change if both Koreas had them. The Japanese know the Koreans have never forgiven them for their brutal colonization of Korea between 1910 and 1945. Rather than risk nuclear blackmail from across the Sea of Japan, the Japanese might well end up building their own.
Despite Japan's reliance on the U.S. for military protection, our ag-trade negotiators have never found the Japanese market easy to pry open. Imagine how difficult doing that would be with a nuclear-armed Japan no longer dependent on the U.S. nuclear shield.
Having read this far, you might be wondering why I'm imagining these gloomy outcomes when the most recent North Korea news has been so sunny. Why worry about failure when we've just seen South Korean president Moon Jae-In walk hand-in-hand across the border with North Korea's Kim? Why fret when Kim is promising to dismantle his nuclear test site in public view and work toward "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula?"
Heartening as these gestures are, I cannot believe Kim is ever going to give up his ability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The thing he cares about most is remaining in power, and his nukes are his security blanket. They deter us from trying to overthrow his regime. Deep down, he doesn't trust us any more than we trust him.
So if President Trump is serious about insisting on real, verifiable, irreversible North Korean nuclear disarmament--and I believe he is--his talks with Kim will fail. North Korea is not going to give him that.
I would love to be proved wrong. I hope I will be. I fear not. In my view, the best we can hope for is maintaining the status quo even if the talks fail--avoiding a major war in Asia and convincing South Korea and Japan that the U.S. nuclear umbrella will continue to protect them.
For all the peace-and-love atmospherics, North Korea is a nuclear power and is likely to remain so. As the world comes to grip with that reality, many things could change. It isn't too early to begin worrying about how those changes will play out.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org