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The Peninsula

Does South Korea Need a Nuclear Deterrent?

Published July 11, 2012
Category: South Korea

By Chad 0’Carroll

Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dae-joong wrote yesterday that because South Korea is surrounded by three nuclear weapons countries (DPRK, China and Russia), it should consider acquiring nuclear weapons. He argued that new laws passed in Japan meant that Tokyo “wants to develop nuclear weapons”, leaving the ROK as the only country in the Six Party Talks to be neither “nuclear armed or potentially armed”.  While some may just dismiss the piece as anti-Japanese rhetoric in the fallout of the recent Japan-ROK pact issue, it was in fact the second column that Kim has written on the topic since 2011, suggesting that Japan is but one motivation for South Korea to consider obtaining nuclear weapons.  His views about nuclear weapons are surprisingly also reflected by an increasing proportion of the general public and even amongst a small number of increasingly vocal lawmakers.  But a close look at his latest piece reveal five reasons why policymakers on both sides of the Pacific should not give any due consideration to his latest case for South Korean nuclear weapons:

  1. Kim starts out his argument by saying that, “Why does Seoul continue to adhere to what looks like an increasingly outdated peace and denuclearization policy? The goal of denuclearization in Northeast Asia has become unattainable”.  While it may well be true that denuclearization of North Korea and indeed the region seems extremely unlikely for the foreseeable future, that does not mean that South Korea should give up on the most universally approved international security apparatus in the world – the non-proliferation treaty.  While Kim might see some short term advantages in developing a South Korean nuclear arsenal, as a state already protected by the nuclear umbrella of the U.S., this move would seriously undermine the credibility of the non-proliferation regime and set back progress that has so-far resulted in the creation of five nuclear weapon free zones worldwide.
  2. Early on in the piece Kim asserts that “Tokyo [is] taking necessary steps so it could arm itself with nuclear weapons if the need arises.”  He points to recent changes in Japanese nuclear power laws that refer to the “security of our nation” as evidence that Tokyo “suggests it wants to develop nuclear weapons too”.  However, this interpretation willfully ignores the revised laws’ wording which still limits the use and research of nuclear power to “peaceful purposes”. Secondly, it ignores Japanese minister’s assurances that “the safeguards are in place to prevent nuclear proliferation. The word ‘security’ precisely means the prevention of nuclear proliferation.”    Quite how this point leads Kim to later and completely incorrectly claim that “Japan [is] allowed to possess nuclear weapons but not South Korea”, is difficult to understand.
  3. Mentioning that the House Armed Services Committee had recently voted in support of redeploying nuclear weapons in ROK territory, Kim says the White House and State Department remain opposed to the idea as part of a “a well-planned strategy” to not offend China.  Firstly, the vote did not indicate support to return tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, but was for an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 national defense authorization bill to enable an examination of the case for re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Secondly, even if the vote had advocated such a move, the “strategy” for rejecting it is based on sound political and military reasons.  Redeploying would likely lead to further build up of weapons in Pyongyang, while the free-falling, fighter-jet dropped nature of the tactical weapons are considerably more risky to use than advanced  ICBM technology.
  4. On Washington’s “silent” reaction to Japan’s change in nuclear policy wording, Kim goes on to say, ”the U.S. may even be seeking to arm Northeast Asian countries with nuclear weapons to create a state of mutually assured destruction so that no country would be foolish enough to pull the trigger.”  However, the State Department’s lack of faith in MAD forms one of their main oppositions to Iran developing nuclear weapons, based on the lack of faith that a nuclear armed Iran would not still risk self-destruction through one-day attacking Israel.  Quite why they’d be confident of actors like North Korea acting more rationally with nuclear weapons then Iran, is hard to distil from Kim’s comments.
  5. Finally, Kim later says that while South Korea shouldn’t immediately acquire nuclear weapons, it should at least “have a nuclear option”.  But having a nuclear option is extremely risky, if one is to consider at least having a real one.  While many often say Japan could use its advanced nuclear infrastructure to create a bomb in as little as six months, Jeffrey Lewis has said time and time again that Japan would actually need up to five years to make this a reality.  And during that time, alarm bells would go off – just as they are with the case of Iran right now.  Alarm bells that lead to sanctions, isolation, and international condemnation: none of which are constructive results for one of the world’s most globalized economies.

Evidently Kim’s latest justification for South Korea to consider a nuclear option is filled with very serious problems that should prevent the debate getting any airtime. However, as mentioned, his comments do nevertheless reflect how talk of South Korea having a nuclear “option” has enter the mainstream in recent time.  In March 2011, an Asan survey revealed that 68.6% of South Koreans polled believe that the country needed nuclear weapons, with 67% favoring a return of U.S. tactical weapons to ROK territory.  And in February 2012 Rep. Song Young-sun of the minor opposition Future Hope Alliance elaborated in a detailed Korea Times feature that she thought South Korea should develop a “nuclear option” so that it would be an equal footing to North Korea in denuclearization talks, a view also echoed in June this year by Saenuri Party Rep. Chung Mong-joon.  In this context, it is important that policy makers in both Seoul and Washington, DC increase their efforts to underline why South Korea does not need nuclear weapons and reinforce to the South Korean public the advantages of being a core part of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Neveda Tumbleweed’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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