The "Baker" explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military in the Pacific in 1946. Photo: US Department of Defense
The 'Baker' explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military in the Pacific in 1946. Photo: US Department of Defense

As strategic risks rise across Northeast Asia, the region desperately needs a security dialog framework, a leading expert said in Seoul Thursday.

It that is not emplaced, and if attempts to denuclearize North Korea fail, multiple states across the region could go critical, Moon Chung-in, a senior academic and former advisor to President Moon Jae-in (no relation) said.

He was speaking as North Korean-US and inter-Korean dialogs on the denuclearization of the peninsula are in an indefinite freeze, and a major, but under-publicized arms race is underway across the region while the China-US confrontation shows no signs of being defused.

Last month, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi signaled that the G3 nation would raise defense spending beyond the traditional 1% of GDP threshold. Beijing’s defense budget is already the second-largest, after the US.

In January, North Korea announced the development of a vast armory of new weapons, while South Korea is spending at unprecedented levels as it seeks to meet conditions for the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops from American to domestic command.

More worryingly, regional acceptance of North Korea as a permanent nuclear power could trigger what Moon called the fall of “dominos” across the region as state after state feels compelled to own its own atomic deterrent.

A screen grab taken from a KCNA broadcast on October 10, 2020, shows what appears to be new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles during a military parade. Photo: AFP / KCNA

The need for a new security architecture

“It is very dangerous,” Moon said. “If we fail to denuclearize North Korea there will be growing voices for the nuclearization of South Korea, and then Japan and even in Taiwan. It’s a real nightmarish scenario.”

While the Moon Jae-in government in Seoul is left-leaning and anti-nuclear, a presidential election is to be held next March. Some voices on the South Korean right have argued that the country needs its own independent nuclear deterrent.

Moreover – although some say this belief is ignorant of the actual technical challenges involved – it is widely believed that Japan has the capacity to arm itself with atomic weapons within months should political conditions dictate such a step.

High-profile South Korean pundit Moon Chung-in. Photo: AFP

In terms of the ideal format for regional security stabilization talks, Moon suggested six-party negotiations involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States.

Those parties formerly convened for multiple rounds of talks in a Beijing-led initiative that ultimately failed to denuclearize North Korea between 2003 and 2009.

Moon suggested the format be resurrected with a wider mandate.

“We need this kind of security architecture in this part of the world, or this part of the world will become extremely dangerous,” he said.

The region is critical to the globe. Along with Western Europe and North America, Northeast Asia is one of the world’s three leading zones of economic activity, but is also a powder keg of potential flashpoints.

Within it, a nuclear-armed North Korea is facing off against South Korea, Japan and the United States. China is postured against Taiwan – which it considers a renegade province – and is engaged in maritime territorial disputes with Japan around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Japan and South Korea are not militarily aligned against one another but are at constant diplomatic loggerheads.

The United States, which has major forces stationed in South Korea and Japan, is juggling alliances with Seoul and Tokyo while overseeing the low-profile Proliferation Security Initiative, which monitors North Korean shipping, and leading the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and itself.

Meanwhile, the region is seeing an unofficial alliance emerge between China and Russia, which maintains forces in the Russian Far East. 

Chinese PLA troops in Russia’s Tsugol Training Range prior to the start of the huge Vostok military drills in 2018. Photo: CCTV

‘Gunboat diplomacy’ returns to Asia

Pouring fuel on to this dangerous slow burn, outside players are wading in.

China is expected to feature prominently in talks at the G7+4 summit – Australia, India, South Africa and South Korea have been specially invited – in London from June 11, and then at the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, when the alliance will mull its future.

Last month, visiting French troops trained with US and Japanese marines in Kyushu, and a British-led carrier strike group is heading for the Indo-Pacific, arriving in South Korea and Japan in August-September.

Moon was angrily dismissive of this rising Atlanticist presence in Indo-Pacific.

“The recent overstretch of NATO in this part of world reminds me of late 19th century East Asia – I think it is destabilizing,” he said. “NATO is for Europe. Why the hell should they come to his part of the world?”

These maneuvers by Europeans in Asia, Moon said, recalled imperial days of yore.

“It reminds me of gunboat diplomacy,” he said. “As someone who lives in this part of the world, I think NATO should be much more prudent.”

The new British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth is en route to the region on her first operational deployment. Photo: AFP / Glyn Kirk

Hope for the Koreas

Still, Moon – a prominent figure in the pro-engagement camp, who has been present at all summits held between North and South Korea – was upbeat on the outlook for the peninsula, following last month’s highly successful summit in Washington between Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden.

Even though North Korean state media lambasted the summit for its hostility – one summit outcome was that Washington lifted payload and range ceilings from Seoul’s domestic missile programs  – Moon considered it a mild response.

“There was nothing other than some critical comments on the lifting of missile guidelines, and this suggests to me that they are analyzing the summit with a cautious stance as there is so much to review,” he said. “If they had been more critical, there would have been a statement from the Foreign Ministry or from [Kim’s sister] Kim Yo Jong.”

Another notable North Korean development monitored by South Korea this week was the apparent removal from party documentation of Pyongyang’s “united front” strategy – the long-held North Korean ambition to communize its southern neighbor.

“This means that North Korea is dealing with North Korea – the coronavirus and economic difficulties,” he said. He characterized the omission as a “very positive development.”

He anticipated upcoming inter-Korean contacts preceding North Korea-US contacts, though he noted approvingly that Biden had reversed his earlier criticism of Kim, and had expressed his willingness to have a summit with him if working-level discussions bear fruit.

However, he also sounded a warning. With joint South Korea-US military exercises tentatively scheduled for August – which are sure to raise tensions, there is an element of urgency in getting talks underway.

“Timing matters,” Moon said, adding that he expects some signal from North Korea, or some form of contact, within June.