Washington — As worrying as North Korea’s nuclear advance is for America, the increasingly realistic threat of an atomic warhead striking a U.S. city might be even more unnerving for South Korea and Japan. So much so that the United States is considering new ways to flex its nuclear muscle to defend its vulnerable allies as they ponder if they’ll one day need atomic arsenals of their own.

For decades, the United States has defended South Korea and Japan, the nations most directly threatened by the North’s missiles and massive conventional forces, through an extended “nuclear umbrella.” The basic premise is that an attack on either ally risked a devastating American response. It’s a U.S. commitment that has guided the actions of American friends and foes alike.

Pyongyang’s emerging capabilities are upsetting all calculations. The North this weekend exploded its strongest-ever nuclear weapon and in July tested a pair of intercontinental ballistic missiles that might soon be able to threaten the entire American mainland.

Now that the United States faces its own threat of North Korean retaliation, the most pressing security question of the next years could be: Would Washington risk San Francisco for Seoul?

“It’s the core dilemma of extended deterrence for allies in the nuclear era: Will the U.S. actually risk one of their population centers for our defense?” Sheila Smith at the Council on Foreign Relations said. “It’s hard to believe the answer is yes.”

Speaking to the Associated Press on Tuesday, former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan acknowledged that North Korea’s more powerful bombs and further-reaching missiles are sparking debate about his country’s long-term security strategy.

“Worries have begun to appear,” he declared of the U.S. commitments, and said a growing minority of South Koreans want Washington to redeploy short-range nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the country in the early 1990s. Others question if South Korea should have nukes of its own.

The Pentagon declined to outline its position.

South Korea and Japan can present no picture of apocalyptic retaliation by themselves — which adds to their current vulnerability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday condemned North Korea’s latest nuclear test, but also warned against using military force against the country, calling it a “road to nowhere” that could lead to a “global catastrophe.”


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