This paper was presented at the conference “”The North Korean Nuclear Test and the Future of Northeast Asia” hosted by the Asia Foundation on December 4, 2006.
In the most fundamental sense, the US security role in Northeast Asia is no different in the wake of the North Korean nuclear test from what it was before. The United States will continue to be the most powerful nation present in the region and will continue to have vital political, economic and security interests that will drive it to continue to play the role of regional balancer or stabilizer for the foreseeable future.
The military balance on the Korean Peninsula itself has not been changed by the DPRK test, nor would it be fundamentally changed even if the North were believed to have a truly deliverable weapon. The latter would, of course, raise the ante not only in terms of the threat to South Korea, but most especially to Japan and US forces there given the substantial Nodong missile force in the North’s inventory. A workable Taepodong II missile would expand the North’s reach substantially, but even in that case, to put it in its crudest terms, the balance of forces ensures that if North Korea started a war, we would finish it.
Nonetheless, the test does alter the situation in some important ways, and one of the challenges for the United States-and for the other countries of the region-is to rise to the occasion to manage the new situation constructively. Handled well, the net effect could be to strengthen the American role and the prospects for peace and security of the region. Mishandled, the net effect could be to diminish US influence over time, and to generate forces toward a much less certain future for all concerned.
In sum, the North Korean nuclear test has not had a harmful effect so far on US interests or substantially changed the US role in Northeast Asia. But the situation is not static. If we do not seize the moment to press the advantages that have been created for us, we will not only have squandered an opportunity presented by the North Korean test to consolidate our relations with our allies and with China, but we might ironically find ourselves relatively isolated and cast in the role of spoiler. There is no reason for the United States to allow that to happen, and every reason to ensure it doesn’t.
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