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East Asia and Proliferation: Storm Warnings?


These remarks were delivered on February 18, 2010, to an event cosponsored by Hudson Institute and the Partnership for a Secure America, entitled “Nuclear Non-Proliferation and East Asia.”

I’m grateful to the Partnership for a Secure America for its co-sponsorship of this conference, and pleased to have the chance to participate.  I’ve been with Hudson for over a year now, but it’s only this week that I’ve actually returned full-time to Washington: it’s wonderful to be back in town, and to have the chance to be here today.

When I was in the nonproliferation verification and compliance business at the State Department, we spent a good bit of time trying to track the North Korean nuclear weapons program.  On my website,, I’ve detailed some of the frustrations of working that issue at the time.  It’s now 2010, however, and it seems quite clear that Pyongyang is indeed a full-spectrum problem: it has been working both the plutonium and the uranium routes to nuclear weapons.

After sneering at the Obama Administration’s more conciliatory diplomatic posture with the detonation of a second presumably plutonium-based nuclear device last May, DPRK officials admitted in September that they were indeed enriching uranium, a claim that information recounted by Pakistani nuclear smuggler A.Q. Khan tends to corroborate.  (Khan apparently helped the DPRK get its uranium program started in the 1990s.)  The bigger question is what, if anything, can or will be done about the DPRK’s programs.

My own guess is that the DPRK is likely at some point to return to full denuclearization talks with the United States.   Whether or not other countries are also part of these discussions is less clear.  It may be that Washington will have become sufficiently desperate for some kind – any kind – of “diplomatic progress” that it will give Pyongyang what it has been seeking for some time: the prestige and importance of one-on-one negotiations with the hyperpower.

The more important question, however, is whether anything is likely to come of such talks.  I’m pessimistic.  Returning to the negotiating table is not the same thing as reaching agreement, and I don’t see that the government in Pyongyang has much incentive to give away the only thing that has enticed the Great Powers to give that corrupt and brutal little mess of a regime any serious attention at all since 1993.

To the extent that Washington really feels nonproliferation in its gut these days – and to the extent that Russia and China are likely to agree to anything at the Security Council – all are preoccupied with Iran.  North Korea seems unlikely to adjust its cost-benefit calculations.  If conducting two nuclear detonations, apparently sending uranium enrichment feedstock to Libya, going public with uranium enrichment, and helping Syria build a plutonium-production reactor haven’t provoked a serious crackdown, new pressures seem improbable.  On the other hand, new concessions would probably just encourage further misbehavior by rewarding it, as has happened frequently in the past.

Pyongyang might decide that more talks are a useful way to return itself to the limelight, but I don’t see much chance that it will give up the nuclear weapons programs it has used so profitably for so many years.  Even if it were serious about denuclearization, moreover, North Korea seems vanishingly unlikely to accept the kind of verification measures that would be needed if the rest of the world wished to have some confidence that these serial scofflaws were not simply still up to their old tricks.

The continuing intractability of the DPRK problem will present grave problems for the credibility of the NPT regime – which hasn’t exactly been distinguishing itself in the compliance enforcement department.  Despite this, however, I do not feel that Pyongyang’s weapons are the most significant nonproliferation problem in East Asia.

North Korea’s continued non-denuclearization certainly contributes to the bad joke of NPT-related compliance enforcement.  In itself, however – apart from the troubling issues of precedent and example – North Korea’s weapons are probably less destabilizing in East Asia than is Iran’s pursuit of them in its region.  As far as I’m aware, the Kim dynasty does not harbor lingering ancient visions of hegemony in its area of the world.  Nor is it run by a radicalized clique of religious zealots infected with a deeply messianic, martyrdom-infatuated religious fanaticism that seeks to immanentize the eschaton, as it were, by remaking in its own image the world beyond its borders.  North Korea is a huge problem, to be sure, and its leaders do incline to attention-seeking provocations.  Nevertheless, Pyongyang seems less likely than Iran to seek broader power over its region, and less likely to energize proliferation responses in its neighbors.

For my part, I am more worried about the regional proliferation implications of the rise of China.  If anything, this issue may be looming more quickly than anticipated.  Its economy seemingly barely dented by the global recession, China’s rise to the first rank of global powers seems nearer than ever – while present-day Washington seems more insecure than ever, and is increasingly hobbled by domestic spending burdens.

It is not simply that China’s nuclear trend lines are going in the wrong direction – though of course Beijing is the only NPT nuclear weapons state to be increasing the overall size as well as the technical sophistication of its nuclear arsenal.  (According to Pentagon figures, it seems to have grown by now well over a quarter since 2005 alone.)  The problem is really more that due to the combination of China’s increasing military might, its huge and rapidly-growing economy, and its increasing willingness to throw its weight around, China may be leaving its technically sophisticated neighbors less and less choice but to develop nuclear weapons as a “poor man’s” counterpoint to Beijing’s power.  The disfavor in today’s Washington for extended deterrence relationships with allies – and especially for the nuclear aspects of such relationships – is hardly helping.

For the last several thousand years, Chinese conceptions of world order have differed in important ways from the Western-derived system of separate, coequal sovereignties that forms the basis of modern international law and is the foundation of today’s global politics.  This isn’t the time to trace the details – for that, you should read my book The Mind of Empire, out this spring from the University Press of Kentucky – but for a very long time China’s approach to regional and world order did not envision a state system of formal equals.  Instead, it traditionally conceived power in the vertical dimension rather than the horizontal, in gradients of power proceeding outward in concentric circles from the human world’s Chinese civilizational core.

A critical question for 21st-Century geopolitics concerns the degree to which this ancient conception of order – that is, this ancient preference for moral and political hierarchy – is still a powerful motivator for Chinese behavior vis-à-vis the non-Chinese world.  China may now have internalized Western-derived notions of sovereign equality.  Or it may not, with the result that its behavior could become ever more problematic, for the rest of the world, as China’s growing power gives it more options.  I don’t pretend to know which way China will go, or to what degree it will do so.  But China’s neighbors are under no illusions about at least the potential that Beijing will at some point wish to reshape the world more according to its traditional preferences.

If I had to pick the East Asian dynamic of most importance from a proliferation perspective, therefore, I would point to China’s rise, rather than North Korea’s nuclear status.  Together, however, these two dynamics are worse still: they risk creating a sort of  “perfect storm” for nuclear weapons proliferation.  The DPRK situation – and that in Iran, lest we forget – daily demonstrates the general impotence of the nonproliferation regime in responding to violations. At the same time, China’s rise seems steadily to be increasing others’ incentive to look for strategic hedges in the face of growing Chinese power.  This coincidence of factors is very worrying indeed.

-- Christopher Ford


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