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The Peninsula

South Korea’s Nuclear Debate

Published October 19, 2022
Category: South Korea

As concern regarding an imminent North Korean nuclear test increases, the debate on South Korea securing its own nuclear weapons is also increasing. There are strong reasons why this debate should be looked at very carefully in Washington.

The current debate started with recent discussions in the Yoon Administration regarding the hosting of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. South Korea has not hosted U.S. tactical nuclear weapons since 1991. Securing an agreement to host U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would allow the Yoon Administration to demonstrate that it is taking action to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons capacity.

However, in many ways, the debate on hosting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons is moot. South Korea would have no control over their use; it would further justify North Korea’s position in the eyes of those who already justify it; and it would be strategically impotent – with its U.S. mutual defense treaty, South Korea already sits under the “nuclear umbrella”. Any North Korean attack, whether conventional or nuclear, would not go unpunished.

Reflecting this, sitting under the surface of the plan to host U.S. tactical nuclear weapons is the misguided hope that it would lead to an independent nuclear weapons capacity. The question of an independent nuclear weapons capacity is not a recent debate and must be considered in light of covert programs and experiments to secure an independent nuclear weapons capacity in 1975, 1982 and 2000. While there are useful general insights into what makes countries go nuclear, context is also important. And it’s here that U.S. policymakers should pay careful attention.

First, the nuclear debate should be understood in context of South Korea’s long-term desire to be more independent. The desire to secure greater independence to avoid encroachments of neighbors and foes is historical, but still sits deep in the Korean psyche. To this day, it fuels ideological debates between left and right, and justifies decision-making on agriculture, energy, and industry. It partially explains South Korea’s recently highlighted success in defense industry exports, and equally explains South Korea’s pursuit of a civilian nuclear energy and technology export sector. South Korea’s civilian nuclear sector is today just one very small regulatory step away from a complete fuel cycle.

Second, the nuclear debate should also be understood in context of domestic politics. Both the conservative and progressive camps have ideological rationales supporting an independent nuclear weapons capacity. But power in South Korea’s political system is vested in the presidential office at the cost of the assembly and judiciary; and centered on individuals rather than parties. This means policy platforms are more dynamic, reactionary, and often reflective of an individual politician’s strengths and weaknesses. With growing public support for an independent South Korean nuclear weapons capacity, it will not take long for an ambitious potential leader to make a clear call for securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity.

Third, the nuclear debate should be understood in the context of national pride. As has been seen just North of the border (as well as in other recent entrants), securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity provokes a certain element of national pride. Although a South Korean decision would be unlikely to involve fanfare or propaganda, many would undoubtedly hold a degree of pride in knowing South Korea had entered a highly exclusive grouping of accepted, responsible, nuclear weapons states.

Together, the context suggests that nukes are not as far away or impossible as some imagine. But more alarming for U.S. policymakers is the fact that the nuclear weapons debate is inseparable from broader trends in South Korea’s strategic position.

Securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity opens a can of strategic worms that have always wriggled just under the surface. With increased tension between Washington and Beijing, they’re now surfacing for all to see.

  • Washington. South Korea’s attitude towards the U.S. alliance has always been highly transactional rather than values-based. From its earliest negotiation to joint action on Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, the driving force in South Korea’s decision-making on the alliance has been securing maximum benefit at minimal cost. An independent nuclear weapons capacity significantly changes these calculations. Does U.S./China tension make the transaction cost excessive?
  • Beijing. South Korea has to date been substantially more reticent to harm its relations with China from banning Huawei to labeling the Indo-Pacific. While many in the U.S. believed this was a progressive/conservative divide, Yoon has demonstrated that this is not the case. Rather, it’s a much deeper historical awareness that China is not going anywhere, and it will always hold the capacity to impose significant cost on South Korea. Add to this the vague notion that China holds the key to Korean unification and it’s easy to see why this influences decision making. Could South Korea accept a region dominated by China?
  • Avoiding choice. Over the last ten years, interest in how neutral states can avoid great power conflict has grown substantially. Academics, think tanks, and government research institutes have spent time looking at neutrality, such as Switzerland, and non-committal strategic partnerships, such pre-application Sweden and NATO, and Singapore and the United States. Can a state secure both the economic benefits of China and the security benefits of the United States?

Deciding to pursue a legal or illegal breakout would impose substantial immediate and medium-term cost. However, ultimately the nuclear weapons question is South Korea’s choice.  Good diplomacy never takes away choices or blocks choices – it merely opens new choices or encourages and persuades partners to make (and own) the preferred choice.

Twenty years ago, the United States had an opportunity to prevent North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In twenty years’ time, nobody should look back and say the United States once had an opportunity to prevent South Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The time to address the issue is now.

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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