Recently, news from the Korean Peninsula has been dominated by missiles: as satellite images confirmed, the North Koreans have been busy preparing another test launch of "BM-25 Musudan", their intermediate-range missile.

The launch ended in failure, the fourth such failure in this year. Nonetheless, North Korean engineers and scientists are busy developing both long-range and submarine-based ballistic missiles, capable of hitting the United States.

There has been much hype about the recent Musudan launch, but few people noticed another piece of news that came from South Korea a week earlier.

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A high-ranking official, speaking on condition of anonymity - but clearly authorised to make such statements - said that the South Korean navy is also developing its own submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), so the new South Korean submarines will be equipped with a launchpad.

This statement was a reminder of another possible challenge associated with the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes: The threat is that its programmes will provoke a symmetrical response from the countries in the region, triggering a missile and, perhaps, even a nuclear arms race.

Strategic balance

Such fears were much expressed a decade ago, after the first nuclear test that the North Koreans conducted in October 2006.

Then there was a talk of both South Korea and Japan going nuclear. Subsequent events seemingly dispersed such fears, but now they might be resurfacing again.

Partially, this might be a reaction to a possible turn towards isolationism in the US, on whose nuclear umbrella both South Korea and Japan have relied on for decades.

Donald Trump has already stated that he would not rule out a US withdrawal from East Asia, and would consider the possibility of both South Korean and Japan going nuclear- so they would be able to defend themselves without American assistance.

North Koreans are determined to maintain and improve their nuclear deterrent, and given their strategic situation, they can hardly be blamed for such an attitude.

 

Admittedly, this is merely the opinion of a rather eccentric (to say the least) presidential candidate, but to a degree it reflects steady changes in the American mindset.

On the other hand, in South Korea, the idea of acquiring its own nuclear weapons has gained some traction as well - unlike Japan, once a victim of nuclear attack, Koreans are not allergic to nuclear weapons per se.

In January 2016, a poll indicated that 54 percent of South Koreans theoretically would like their country to acquire nuclear weapons - and this figure has remained in excess of 50 percent for at least two decades.

Thinking the unthinkable

Recently, the idea of going nuclear has been expressed by South Korean mainstream politicians with increasing frequency.

So far, such remarks have largely been either part of pre-election rhetoric aimed at winning the votes of rather jingoistic sections of the public, or a way to exercise pressure on the US, ensuring that the American nuclear umbrella would remain at hand.

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But now things might be changing - growing uncertainty about the US commitments make some South Korean strategists pause and think the unthinkable.

Trump's signature antics are only a part of the problem. It is also important - as North Korean nuclear and missile programmes are advancing fast - that some South Koreans now wonder if the US will be willing to get involved in a war with a fully nuclear North Korea to protect its ally - or, as South Koreans often put it, "to risk San Francisco to save Seoul".

The decision to equip submarines with SLBM launchpads - given that SLBMs make perfect sense only if armed with nuclear warheads - is a serious sign of change, since such a decision, unlike rhetoric outbursts, does cost money.

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And then what? If the nuclear and missile arms race starts in East Asia, where will it stop? East Asia today is eerily reminiscent of Europe in the early 1900s, before the outbreak of World War I.

It is also a place where most nations deeply distrust their neighbours, and where old-style nationalism still reigns supreme.

So far, age-old hatreds have been controlled by the US hegemony - Koreans and Japanese, in spite of their historical animosities, have been prevented from confrontation by their alliances with the US - as well as by the record high economic growth. But will such a state of things continue indefinitely? This looks increasingly unlikely.

Nuclear arms race?

And, surely, there is the "China factor" - the rising superpower is, to put it mildly, quite unpopular among its neighbours, from Vietnam to Japan.

In the changing strategic situation, many such countries can choose nuclear weapons as a way to deter China which - due to its sheer size and economic might - can hardly be deterred by conventional weapons.

Indeed, the eventual deployment of the North Korean nuclear-armed missiles, combined with signs of US indecisiveness, might easily push South Korea towards acquiring its own nuclear deterrent.

Technically, acquiring nuclear weapons would not cost much money or take much time for a highly developed nation such as South Korea.

If it happens, the probability of a nuclear Japan will increase, and Taiwan, as well as more advanced countries of South East Asia, might start wondering why they should be left behind.

Usually, such columns are supposed to end with some positive suggestions, but in this case there is hardly anything optimistic to say.

North Koreans are determined to maintain and improve their nuclear deterrent, and given their strategic situation, they can hardly be blamed for such an attitude.

However, their actions increase the risk to security in this vital region, and perhaps the entire world.

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Andrei Lankov is a professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. He is the author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera