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The Thucydidean analogy was most evident in the build-up to World War One but also applies to contemporary Asia. South Korea’s priority is to avoid a peninsular war. Japan wishes to avoid any US action which will lead to North Korean recrimination against her. Simultaneously, prime minister Shinzo Abe is utilising public fear to pursue remilitarisation commensurate with Japan’s economic standing. As Allison also noted, with so many competing interests, the risks of each party misinterpreting the blunt facts of military and political activity increases the risk of stumbling into great power conflict.

The latest combination of thermonuclear and missile test might well ignite a regional nuclear arms race. America suddenly has a much harder job in convincing her Asian allies of the value of her “nuclear umbrella”. The open-source intelligence picture is far from clear, but it appears that although North Korea has both a thermonuclear capability and a rapidly advancing long-range missile platform, it probably does not yet have the capability to fuse the two. However, the assumption must be that its resources are focused on getting a nuclear-tipped missile as quickly as possible.

Although it has been a fringe debate on the far Right of South Korean politics for many years, for the first time a majority of South Koreans want either an indigenous nuclear capability or the repositioning of American tactical nuclear weapons in their country. Militarily, the appeal is glaringly obvious. Nuclear weapons offer international prestige. Although the nuclear umbrella was always extended to South Korea by the US, their physical presence would be a much more tangible reminder of mutually assured destruction. However, there is a huge operational difference between weapons under US control and those under local control. South Korea now faces two difficult strategic questions. First, is current US defence adequate to deal with a nuclear attack? Second, now that the North has thermonuclear capability, a more fundamental question arises — would the US “risk San Francisco for Seoul?” In other words, if the North were to simultaneously attack the South and threaten the US if it came to its ally’s aid, would the US risk its own territory? This is exactly the same debate that took place in early Cold War Europe. The conclusions drawn by the Europeans resulted in the UK and France seeking their own nuclear capabilities. The same argument is now playing out in South Korea and Japan.

Currently, cooler heads are prevailing and both the US and South Korea realise that the stationing of either indigenous or US nuclear weapons would cause unacceptable escalation of the situation, not least with China. Military logic makes it seem unlikely that the South would ever seriously want to actually use nuclear weapons on the peninsula. Their use would immediately assign responsibility for the resultant death and chaos. It would also pose the problem that they would presumably have to invade and hold territory that had just been irradiated. This is the ultimate distinction between the Korean example and other current nuclearised conflicts such as India and Pakistan. In all other cases the other side does not seek to absorb the other, meaning the use of nuclear weapons is less costly. In the Cold War the cost of rebuilding would have been borne by the side which was attacked. This is not the case in Korea, where the absorption of the North is written into the constitution of the South.

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