Saturday, November 27, 2010

Nuke for Nuke

Just before he was forced to resign over the recent North Korean shelling, South Korea’s defense minister, Kim Tea-young, made an intriguing statement when, in answer to a question in parliament he implied that it might be a good idea for Seoul to invite the Americans to reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons into his country.

The minister quickly backtracked, and his deputy was dispatched to say that he didn’t really mean it. Any introduction of nuclear weapons would “cross the line of the denuclearization policy on the Korean peninsula,” he said. That is, of course, as if North Korea hasn’t been crossing numerous lines in its quest for nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War the United States deployed tactical nuclear weapons at American air bases in South Korea such as Osan and Kunsan. My own air force unit, the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing based in Japan, rotated one of its three squadrons of Phantom jets to Korea to stand round –the-clock nuclear alert at Osan AFB.

Soon after the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, President George H.W. Bush ordered their removal from Korean bases and also from aircraft carriers and other U.S. Navy ships that ply the waters off East Asia. So for two and a half decades, East Asia (minus China) was, until the North’s first nuclear test, a nuclear-free zone. Looked at from the point of view of the U.S. and South Korea, it still is.

The former defense minister’s remarks came before the recent North Korean shelling of an offshore South Korean islands that cost him his job, but, more to the point, and far more ominous, after an American was given a personal tour of North Korea’s surprisingly sophisticated gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, the North’s nuclear complex.

The plant is designed, the visitor was told, to enrichment uranium to the minimum needed – about 4-5 percent U-235 – to fuel what it termed an “experimental” light water reactor at the same site. Just what was experimental about it was not revealed except that it must be some kind of an advance on the primitive, 1950s technology on which the North has previously based its weapons program.

The show and tell in Yongbyon and perhaps the more recent off shore shelling may be Pyongyang’s way to getting attention and possibly restarting the six-party talks, which have been suspended for two years. But if that is the case, the U.S. and its allies and friend might think hard about what they want to talk about should the meeting, resume.

For the past fifteen years the negotiations either through six-party format (the parties are North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States) or bilaterally between the U.S. and North Korea have been predicated on the idea that Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons program as a chip to be bargained away in return for aid, normal relations, lifting of sanctions, and other Inducements.

By now it should have become clear that Pyongyang is indifferent to inducements, unappreciative of aid and impervious (with help from China) to sanctions. It is increasingly clear that the country does not see its nuclear program as a bargaining chip and has no intention of giving it away just for an embassy in Washington.

The North wants its nuclear weapons for what they are, a deterrent from invasion and a sign that they are a power to be reckoned with. They see the program as their crown jewel, something that they can point to with pride when there isn’t much else to be proud about. The fact that they are making a quantitative advance in their technology only enhances this.

So if the talks reconvene, what is there to talk about? Will the U.S. and its allies go down the same fruitless path? What inducements can we offer that they haven’t tried before? The North is hurting economically, but it has been hurting for a long time and won’t be allowed to fully collapse by the Chinese.

The U.S. side needs some new bargaining chips, and they could be provided by reintroducing some tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea from their storage vaults in Europe. Such a move could be a game changer, turning the six-party talks into what are in effect nuclear disarmament negotiations. It may even play to the Dear Leader’s ego – Kim Jong-il as Gorbachev and Barack Obama as Reagan.

It is said that North Korea possesses enough separated plutonium to make about 8-12 atomic bombs. So the U.S. should insert perhaps a dozen tactical nukes into the South. Then for every bomb the North turns over we remove (maybe even destroy) one of ours. It doesn’t cost us anything – the weapons are not there now.

It could be fairly argued that there is sufficient power to deter a North Korean invasion represented by ballistic missile submarines. They provide the protection of the “nuclear umbrella” for South Korea as well as Japan. But for most of Korean and Japanese the nuclear umbrella is an abstraction.

Presumably, an American ballistic missile submarine is prowling somewhere submerged in the north Pacific with a full complement of Trident missiles. But it is literally out of sight and thus out of mind for most of the region. Moreover it is beside the point of tactical redeployment. Deterrent power isn’t the aim; bargaining power is.

Such a proposal obviously would go against the grain of many, not the least the Obama administration, which wants to see as one of its legacies a reduction of nuclear weapons, not an expansion. But it may be the only way to persuade the North Koreans to really disarm.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

From the Ashes

Only six months ago images of red-shirted protestors battling with green-clad soldiers and burning shopping malls in the commercial heart of Bangkok dominated the news coming out of Thailand. Many foreign countries, including the U.S., advised citizens to stay away. One would have thought that the deadly disturbances would set the country back years.

The amazing thing is that what amounted to an attempted revolution in tense months of April and May this year caused so little lasting damage, to the economy at least. “Thailand is very resilient,” said Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, speaking in Tokyo last week.

One could say that again. The Thai economy expects to record 8-9 percent growth in gross domestic product when the third quarter is tabulated. The fourth quarter may be down slightly but only because of the damage caused by the worst flooding throughout the country in decades. These figures put Thailand in the growth league of China.

Looking back it appears that the disturbances, the bloodiest in Thailand since 1991, had virtually no impact on the manufacturing economy, the supply chain or even tourism. Thailand is on track to attract 15 million tourists this year equal to the highest number from previous years.

Other economic indicators are looking impressive. Unemployment, never more than 4 percent even as the global financial crisis washed over the country two years ago is now at an astonishing 1 percent. In many parts of the economy there are labor shortages. The baht, the Thai currency, has been appreciating.

Like other countries in Asia, Thailand suffered from the onset of the global financial crisis, which many were afraid would plunge the country into a deep recession similar to the one in 1997-98. It met the challenge through a major stimulus program, with income support for elderly and rural sectors. It still raised the total debt to GDP ratio by less than a percentage point.

The Abhisit government is contemplating a second major stimulus aimed this time mainly at improving the country’s infrastructure, transportation and education sectors. Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Co. has expressed confidence in the country by announcing plans to build a new Prius hybrid automobile factory in Thailand.

The government has lifted the state-of-emergency it imposed during the spring riots in 21 provinces, although it is still in effect in Bangkok and three surrounding provinces. Abhisit said this was necessary for certain incidents such as a spate of mysterious postal bombings that have unnerved the capital but not caused casualties. He said he uses the special power sparingly to avoid unneeded detentions.

This is a sensitive time in Thailand as the six-month anniversaries of key events in the struggle last spring approach. Despite the state of emergency, Red shirted demonstrators paid tribute on Nov. 13 to one of their heroes, Khattoya Sawasdopol better known as She Doeng, a ex-general and red shirt leader killed by sniper on that date.

There was some concern whether the demonstrators would to move to Ratchaprasong Intersection Nov 19 for the anniversary of the bloody military crackdown. But it says something about security situation that the prime minister felt confident enough to travel to Japan for the annual APEC meeting.

Meanwhile, the government’s nemesis, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, chimed in from exile, twitting the government for still holding what he termed “political prisoners” in contrast to the generals in Myanmar who released Aug San Suu Kyi from house arrest after 15 years detention.

Abhisit said that he had a “target” of holding a general election early next year. His party is doing well in the public opinion polls, he maintained, but added he wasn’t timing his call to take advantage of the polling data. “I’d rather have a peaceful election and lose than a violent one that I win,” he said..

One would think that the positive news on the economic front, allied with initiatives to help alleviate some of the grievances from poorer parts of the country would bode well for his coalition. It should be remembered, however that the opposition, under various political banners, have won the previous elections, only to face massive demonstrations from the folks now in the government.

“I want to prove that the events of the last three years [from the Sept. 2007 coup d ‘etat] were an aberration,” said the prime minister..

Friday, November 05, 2010

Japan Gets No Respect

The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield made a career and established a national catchword from his phrase, “I get no respect.” There are many in Japan who think Japan’s political and diplomatic leaders are turning their country into one that “gets no respect.”
“Everything is a mess,” says Takashi Kawakami, a professor of security matters at Takushoku University. “I think Japanese diplomacy may be the worst in postwar history.” Most lay the blame squarely with Prime Minister Naoto Kan and to his inexperienced party, which took office a little more than a year ago.

In recent weeks it seems like Japan has become a punching bag between its two largest near neighbors, China and Russia. The first stems, of course, from the incident surrounding the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain last September and China’s reaction, a dispute that which still reverberates through Japan.

Japan’s decision first to detain the captain of the fishing boat that reportedly rammed coast guard vessels and then to release him to return home in the face of unprecedented pressure from China, may have been a practical move, but it was taken as a major diplomatic defeat by the most of the Japanese people. (YouTube video of the collision was leaked and has been running daily on Japanese television).

Since then Kan has been scrambling in a rather unseemly way to meet with China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to open dialogue on this and other issues. He flew to a European meeting he was planning to skip just to engage in a brief corridor meeting. His efforts to corral Wen in Hanoi made him look like a supplicant. The Chinese premier abruptly cancelled a meeting with Kan on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit in Hanoi, reportedly only after giving a half-hour’s notice.

Meanwhile, Russia has thrown Tokyo into turmoil because of the recent visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to Kunashiri, one of the four islands in the southern Kuril chain that were occupied by Russia after World War II but are still claimed by Japan. It was the first time a Russian leader had ever visited any of the disputed islands

The Russian president’s visit had been announced and was expected, but it still came as a shock to Tokyo that it would come so soon before Medvedev is scheduled to visit Japan to attend the mid-November APEC meeting in Yokohama.

The rainy windswept islands are known as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan. The Kuril chain stretches from the tip of Hokkaido to the large island of Sakhalin. Before the war, Japan occupied all of the Kurils and half of Sakhalin.

Kan described the visit as “regrettable” in a dozen different ways and ordered Japan’s ambassador to Moscow, Masaharu Kono, to come back to Tokyo. Officials were careful to stress that Kono was not being “recalled” a serious diplomatic move, only asked to personally brief the premier and foreign minister Seiji Maehara.

Medvedev’s visit is usually attributed to domestic posturing (though some suspect some kind of hidden Chinese-Russia pincer move). That may or may not be true, but it is also the case that the Russian president didn’t seem to care how the visit it might impact Russo-Japanese relations.

As of this writing, the issue is by no means over, as Medvedev has said he wants to visit other disputed islands in the chain. A stopover at Shitokan or the Habumai islets would put a new dimension to the dispute since these are two territories that in the past Russia has expressed a willingness to return in exchange for a peace treaty.

In a larger sense, Japanese diplomacy has been unsteady ever since the Democratic Party of Japan took over the government after winning a smashing victory in 2009. The DPJ came into power focused mainly on domestic issues and a vague idea of pursuing a foreign policy more independent of that of its ally, the United States.

Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama squandered the early months of his administration in an unproductive and futile effort to reopen the question relocating the U.S. Marine Corps airfield at Futenma outside of Okinawa. The effort only served to irritate Washington, alienate Okinawa and cost Hatoyama his job.

The Okinawa matter was given a rest following Hatoyama’s announcement in May that he would honor the base realignment agreement as negotiated by the preceding government with only technical modifications. However, the issue will likely raise its head again following the Nov. 28 gubernatorial election. Both candidates oppose moving the base to another part of the island..

If nothing else, the imbroglio with China and now with Russia has sobered Tokyo and probably enhanced the value of the U.S. alliance in the government’s mind. One hears very little any more about Japan pursuing a foreign policy more independent of the U.S.

This past summer Tokyo acted quickly to fall in line with the more stringent sanctions against Iran demanded by Washington of its allies with the threat that they might be sanctioned too if they didn’t stop all business dealings with Iran. This was despite the fact that Japan maintains diplomatic relations with Tehran and tries to cultivate good will because of Iran’s importance as a current and future source of petroleum.

Meanwhile, it is fair to say that Beijing’s ambiguous threat to embargo rare earths, of which it currently enjoys a near monopoly, has severely shaken Japan’s business community and punctured the complacent idea that the large and growing economic ties between Japan and China would somehow trump diplomacy in any future crisis.

As the usually pro-China business daily the Nikkei opined: “Now is the time for Japanese business to extricate itself from excessive reliance on China in order to be protected from the ‘China risk’ of unexpected and unfathomable regulations.”