It’s time to demilitarize East Asia

North Korea Kim Jong Un
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North Korea Kim Jong Un

In the past three weeks, North Korean missile launches have twice set sirens blaring over northern Japan, terrifying local civilians and bringing home the reality of the imminent threat from North Korea’s aggressive nuclear weapons program. How should the Japanese government and other regional players respond?

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. In fact, despite American and Japanese rhetoric, there is only one viable way forward: a renewed commitment to peace-building and the demilitarization of East Asia.

{mosads}In a New York Times op-ed this week, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe declared negotiations with North Korea to be at a “dead end,” and asserted that Japan and the United States should keep “all options” on the table.


For Abe, “all options” include not only a possible a military strike against North Korea, but also revising Japan’s 70-year-old pacifist constitution and acquiring new offensive capabilities for Japan’s self-defense forces.

The North Korean threat may be just the impetus Abe needs to win over a skeptical Japanese public to his long-held goals of constitutional revision and a more muscular posture in East Asian affairs.

The North Korean standoff is just the latest in a series of military escalations prompted by the shifting regional power structure. Over the past decade, nations throughout East Asia have responded to perceived threats and provocations by expanding their military capabilities. China’s military spending has doubled in 10 years.

In response, the U.S. has renewed its military commitment to its East Asian allies in case a confrontation should erupt. North Korea has responded to increasing isolation with its aggressive nuclear program. And U.S.-led military initiatives aimed at intimidating North Korea have only made North Korea double down on its costly strategy.

The current instability in East Asia is the product of unresolved Cold War tensions. The U.S. maintains enormous military garrisons in Japan and South Korea despite the putative end of the Cold War.

A “pacifist” Japan continues to depend on the U.S. for its security in the face of Chinese military expansion and threats. Both China and North Korea respond to the perceived threat from the U.S. presence with massive new weapons programs. The U.S. responds, in turn, with increased military commitments. And so the cycle continues.

If the goal of increased militarization is enhanced security, it is not working. Indeed, the danger of a catastrophic confrontation is East Asia is higher than at any time since the Korean War.

There is only one way out of the current cycle of escalation, and that is radical demilitarization. The region’s statesmen need the vision to look beyond the current impasse, to a viable long-term political and strategic framework that guarantees security for all, while eliminating the causes of military escalation.

Japan, with its historic commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes, is positioned to take a leadership role in brokering such an agreement. However, all of the parties — including the U.S. and Russia — need to commit to establishing a security framework for a new, demilitarized East Asia.

The American military presence in East Asia is not contributing to the security of either the U.S. or the region. Thus, the first step for regional security should be U.S. willingness to negotiate withdrawal from the Korean peninsula in exchange for radical demilitarization of North Korea. An agreement should include verifiable demilitarization in both North and South Korea, and a peace treaty that leaves the door open to future reunification.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government should renew its support for its pacifist constitution and the ideology that underlies it. Ultimately, Japan must double down on its commitment to peace, and open a path to removing U.S.military bases from Japan in exchange for enforceable pledges of non-aggression from its neighbors.

U.S. withdrawal from East Asia would, of course, enhance China’s power in the region. But if that power is being used to preserve peace and stability, as it has been over many centuries, that would not necessarily be a strategic disaster for the U.S. Indeed, China would likely offer significant concessions and security guarantees in exchange for a major reduction in the US military presence in the region.

The impasse in East Asia needs a radical solution. America’s web of military obligations in East Asia is far more of a danger than an enhancement to U.S. security. The remilitarization of Japan would be a further step in the wrong direction.

Simon Partner is a professor of history at Duke University who specializes in 19th and 20th-century Japanese history.

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