US fears Asia-Pacific nuclear arms race

SYDNEY • Senior Trump administration officials fear a nuclear arms race in the Asia-Pacific if an increasingly belligerent North Korea is not reined in, Australia's Foreign Minister said yesterday, after talks in New York.

Pyongyang has launched a series of missiles this year, including a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range projectile this month that it claimed was capable of carrying a heavy nuclear warhead, fuelling tensions with Washington. It has carried out two atomic tests since the beginning of last year, insisting it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against the threat of invasion.

The United States is worried that if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not stopped, other countries in the region, including Japan and South Korea, would be compelled to seek their own nuclear capability as a defence measure.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Australian newspaper that this was conveyed to her in New York, where she held meetings with the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

"In my discussions with senior officials in both South Korea and the US, the view was that should North Korea ever be recognised as a nuclear weapons state, then Japan and (South) Korea would have little option than to develop their own nuclear weapons capability," said Ms Bishop. "That is why there is such a strong view that North Korea must be denied this capability."

On the campaign trail last year, US President Donald Trump raised the possibility of Japan and South Korea arming themselves with nuclear weapons, particularly sensitive in Japan - the only country to ever be attacked by atomic bombs - but later drew back from the remarks.

The US said it is willing to enter into talks with North Korea if it halts its nuclear and missile tests, but it has also warned that military intervention was an option, sending fears of conflict spiralling.

Ms Bishop said the "loud and clear" message from Ms Haley was that "when the United States said all options are on the table, they mean it, they are not kidding", pointing to the US sending a nuclear submarine to the region.

More encouragingly, the North's main ally China appeared to be getting onside with the global community, she added in a separate interview with radio station 2GB.

She said: "North Korea currently is rebuffing overtures from China, which is frustrating China.

"In the past, it was seen as very much in the sphere of influence and a branch of their communist party. But now North Korea is being far more belligerent...offensive and making snubs to China."

Ms Bishop urged Beijing to adhere to a new sanctions regime, saying it would "change the economic scenario in North Korea and essentially bring it to the negotiating table".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'US fears Asia-Pacific nuclear arms race'. Print Edition | Subscribe