In a recent interview with The New York Times, former Secretary of State and Cold War strategist Henry R. Kissinger warned that East Asia is racing towards nuclear proliferation.
The controversial former diplomat–whose critics charge with aiding and abetting military regimes in Latin America during his time as part of the Nixon Administration—said that a nuclear-armed North Korea is about to kickstart an arms race in which “nuclear weapons” will “spread in the rest of Asia.”
“It cannot be that North Korea is the only Korean country in the world that has nuclear weapons, without the South Koreans trying to match it. Nor can it be that Japan will sit there,” he said. “So therefore we’re talking about nuclear proliferation.”
Kissinger’s comments come as the threat of a nuclear North Korea has put South Korean and Japan on edge.
Polls show that 60 percent of people in South Korea are in favor of the country building its nuclear weapons–something it once considered until the United States stopped them in their tracks. And in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s quest to change the country’s pacifist constitution to allow it to re-militarize becomes more likely with each North Korean missile test.
As members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, both South Korea and Japan are barred from building or obtaining nuclear weapons. But, per the Times, both countries have both the technological capability of producing thousands of missiles quickly. According to a 2015 report by Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, South Korea alone can feasibly produce 4,300 nuclear bombs.
“If we decide to stand on our own feet and put our resources together, we can build nuclear weapons in six months,” Suh Kune-yull, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University, told the Times. “The question is whether the president has the political will.”
President Donald Trump helped foster these militaristic sentiments on the campaign trail last year, arguing that neither country has paid the U.S. enough for the military protection it provides. In September, the president even offered to sell “sophisticated” military gear to Japan and South Korea, causing worry for possibly triggering an arms race in the region.
Experts have warned for decades about the threat posed by nuclear proliferation in East Asia.
For one, experts believe that a nuclear-armed Japan or South Korea risks escalating any potential low-level military conflict with North Korea to catastrophic levels, as well as undermining their relationship with the U.S.
Nuclear proliferation across the region exponentially increases the possibility of terrorist groups acquiring prime material to produce a makeshift nuclear weapon, or a “dirty bomb.”
South Korea and Japan aren’t the only countries vying to get a hold of ‘the bomb.’ The Times reports that Australia, Myanmar, Taiwan and Vietnam are all considering arming themselves against a rogue North Korean state.