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The Peninsula

Seoul’s Nuclear Chess

Published January 17, 2023
Category: South Korea

Zbigniew Brzezinski described South Korea as a geostrategic pivot on the grand chessboard of Eurasia. When President Yoon stated that South Korea could pursue a nuclear weapons program, he started a game of nuclear chess. South Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons on that chessboard is a strategic plan that requires thinking at least three to four moves ahead. At the moment, supporters are only thinking one move ahead.

Fool’s Mate

Thinking just one move ahead and the possession of nuclear weapons appears to solve a very basic problem. North Korea has nuclear weapons so South Korea’s possession will balance the equation. The Fool’s Mate opening in chess may be the quickest way to checkmate, but it’s also the simplest.

The balance of power on the Korean Peninsula was struck at the end of Korean War, but transformed rapidly with end of Soviet Union and North Korea’s economic collapse. From that point onwards, the South’s capacity to better the North grew exponentially. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program re-established the balance. A technologically advanced, economic and industrial powerhouse, allied to a state with the largest and most powerful military in the world, faced a technologically limited, economic basket case, supported only by its nuclear weapons program. Seek to end the North Korean state and the whole house crashes down – the balance encapsulates an almost Monty Pythonesque black knight strategy of deterrence.

South Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons would not change the balance, but rather just destabilizes the platform on which the balance rests – like putting a seesaw under a seesaw. The tweaks to maintain the balance will be from that point onwards ever more precarious. It will require both North and South Korea to reassess the logic of deterrence, including pre-emption, countermeasures, and second-strike capabilities, thereby increasing uncertainty and decreasing predictability in what is already a precarious potential flashpoint.

Budapest Gambit

Thinking two moves ahead and the possession of nuclear weapons still appears to solve problems. If South Korea possesses nukes, China will wake up, and reign in North Korea. The Budapest Gambit opening requires thinking one or two moves ahead, but it doesn’t take a grandmaster to spot it.

South Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons arguably changes how the game is played in the region. North Korea has grown from an irritant to a threat. For some, it’s clear that China allowed the irritant to grow into a threat, and now uses North Korea as a proxy threat to the United States. Following this logic, a nuclear South Korea would in turn act as a proxy threat to China’s interests. There are some who even argue that this is the reason that the U.S. has not taken a strong position to stop South Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons. If strategists in the U.S. and South Korea are only thinking this far ahead, we’re really in trouble.

The only result from such a strategy is to increase the likelihood of South Korea being a target in any regional conflict. The hopes of those in Seoul’s strategic circles who thought it possible to sit out a conflict in the region would be dashed.

Sicilian Defense

Thinking more than two moves ahead and the calculations start to look more problematic. It’s no different on the grand chessboard. The possession of nuclear weapons threatens exactly what it proposes to resolve. The Sicilian Defense is the most popular opening amongst chess players – but its weakness lies in this popularity.

The mainstay support behind the push to secure an independent nuclear weapons capability in South Korea currently comes from the conservative right. Their expressed aims are in defending South Korea and contributing to the alliance network. Hiding just underneath these expressed aims is the belief that nuclear weapons would provide greater capacity to defend itself were the U.S. to balk at the defense of South Korea – greater independence.

Few think far enough ahead to realize that greater independence will also belong to their political opponents – and the extremes of the conservative right and progressive left interpret independence very differently.

South Korea’s politics do not translate easily into English. Certainly, the words translate, but the cultural underpinnings and contextual variation make these simple translations dangerously delusional. The conservative right and progressive left are distinct from their American counterparts. Further, while the nation’s politics can be roughly divided between the conservative right and progressive left, these terms themselves do not fully contextualize how South Korea’s politics work. Politics are determined less by ideology in the western sense and more by personal and transactional prerogatives. Think Trumpian politics without the constraints of party politics.

For many at the extremes on both left and right, nuclear weapons will open long-repressed national desires, opening up new foreign policy options. These include such fanciful plans, such as the pursuit of a national strategy of armed neutrality.

Over the last five years there has been a noticeable increase in Korean and English language papers looking at strategies of neutrality. There’s an understandable hope that South Korea could be the ultimate fence-sitter and avoid future U.S.-China disputes, while maintaining strong economic relations with both. Supporters also believe that such a strategy and its inherent Sino-Korean accommodation would facilitate eventual Korean unification. Pulling together pools of cheap North Korean labor and the world’s largest infrastructure project is a chaebol or conglomerate dream that would eventually see a unified Korea with an economy the size of France or Germany.

From the U.S. perspective, leveling the nuclear risk with China may seem tempting, but the end result would be the strengthening of domestic political forces in South Korea that wish to see an end to the U.S. alliance.

The Semi-Slav Botvinnik Variation

There are strategies in chess that necessitate thinking three to four moves ahead across multiple plans. They’re convoluted, difficult to plot, and difficult to perceive. South Korea as a nuclear weapons state also presents a more distant, uncertain challenge – it marks the end of the middle power and start of a new nuclear race. The Semi-Slav Botvinnik Variation is an opening that requires more than thirty moves, inviting the opponent to see a path to victory only to tease them deeper and deeper into a trap.

Middle powers rarely attract U.S. scholarly attention, but they are the mortar to the bricks in the great power strategy. Throughout the 20th century they acted as mediators, facilitators, and bulwarks to the U.S.-led liberal international order. They inherently supported that order because international norms mattered – including sovereignty, rule of law, and nuclear non-proliferation. Without these norms, middle powers as we knew them in the 20th century, cease to exist. There are no nuclear middle powers for a reason.

What we are left with is a disparate category sitting between rank 10 and 60 nominal GDP with the only common norm being survival and competition. Around fifty states with the economic, technological, industrial, and diplomatic capacity to independently or cooperatively pursue a nuclear weapons capability and a growing motivation to do so. The spread of nuclear weapons to the 10-60 ranking will transform how all states interact. It was easier to say more may be better forty years ago.

In the end, the potential impacts detailed above are what can be anticipated on the grand strategic chessboard by an academic who regularly loses at chess. The lack of U.S. attention to South Korea’s nuclear debate suggests someone, somewhere in Washington with greater strategic insight and better chess skills, has already accepted these risks and is thinking at least one further move ahead – at least we hope so.

Dr. Jeffery Robertson is Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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