- - Monday, November 20, 2017

If China doesn’t decide to intervene and essentially “denuclearize” North Korea — and soon — the Pacific region will “nuclearize” itself, in reaction to China’s inaction and the growing North Korean nuclear threat.

In short, the People’s Republic of China doesn’t really have a choice in the matter; it must take down the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s various nuclear weapons and related programs. President Trump’s decision Monday to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terror adds weight to the exigency.

Affecting the timing of China’s decision, however, will be the following very critical calculus: Which Asian countries may likely develop nuclear weapons and how long would it take?

In reverse order, how long would it take?

The answer to this might shock some: If one imagines the complete “nuclear fuel cycle” — to include nuclear weapons development — as 100 points on a scale, then 95 to 98 points could be associated with a “peaceful” nuclear program. Only the last few notches in the fuel cycle are needed for actual weapon development.

So, virtually any Asian or Pacific country with nuclear reactors or a nuclear power program, could probably produce a nuclear weapon if it was properly motivated, in other words, if it felt sufficiently threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons.

Which Asian-Pacific countries might consider such a step?

First of all could be countries that, in fact, had nuclear weapons programs at one time or another. This would include South Korea and Taiwan, for sure, and perhaps some others.

Recently, there has even been editorial comment in Australia that it should seriously consider a nuclear weapons program to address the emerging nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile threat from North Korea. Australians certainly have the nuclear material and technology for such a program, should they decide they need it.

Second, most any Asian country that has a nuclear reactor or reactors might well consider adding on the “last steps” to the nuclear fuel cycle, and thereby producing the nuclear materials necessary for a weapons program. Japan, for example, could become a nuclear power very quickly.

Next question: Tactically, should the Chinese delay their action to shut down North Korea’s nuclear weapons program until they can “get something for it” in some kind of structured negotiations with the United States, similar to the past Six-Party talks?

Probably not. This because the U.S. strategic build-up in Asia will likely continue regardless of diplomatic discussions, if any; and likewise, those countries with existing nuclear infrastructures will likely continue thinking about nuclear weapons programs. This because the past negotiations with and/or about the North Korean nuclear program have served only as diplomatic cover for Pyongyang to continue its covert weapons programs. Accordingly, diplomacy does not seem a vehicle for reliable resolution.

Ironically perhaps, if and when China takes down the North Korean nuclear weapons program in a credible way, it could expect to see an immediate reduction in the current U.S. strategic response and build-up in Asia and the Pacific. Likewise, countries that were “on the edge” for beginning their own nuclear weapons programs could likely back down from them.

However, China must act quickly, and must act unilaterally to halt the North Korean nuclear weapons program in order to reverse the massive U.S. strategic responses and build-up in Asia.

Should the Chinese realize that, albeit indirectly, North Korea has become a threat to them? For sure, the reactions by the United States and other Asian countries to the North Korean nuclear weapons programs cannot be in the best interest of China, and they have to know this by now. Finally, do we really care how the Chinese solve the problem as long as they solve it? I really don’t think so.

• Daniel Gallington served through 11 rounds of bilateral negotiations in Geneva as a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Nuclear and Space Talks with the former Soviet Union.

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