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The Peninsula

The Hazy Future of a Nuclear South Korea

Published April 4, 2022
Category: South Korea

A specter is haunting the Korean Peninsula — the specter of nuclear proliferation. On the campaign trail, conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol said he would consult with Washington over redeploying tactical nuclear weapons. Although the president-elect has not officially changed Korea’s stance on nuclear weapons, his comments are part of a larger trend of Korean leaders feeling more comfortable about raising the topic.

According to a Febuary report published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 71% of respondents to the survey said they supported a South Korean nuclear weapons program, while 56% supported the redeployment of American nuclear weapons. When asked to choose between them, researchers found that 67% supported the creation of a domestic nuclear weapons program, while only 9% of respondents said they would choose an American deployment.

One obstacle to South Korea’s nuclear aspirations is its agreement with North Korea not to pursue such weapons. The Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed in 1992, and both sides agreed to forego developing nuclear weapons. Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the agreement is “foundational” to the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. “Keeping that agreement intact is valuable insofar as we intend for denuclearization to continue being the basis of our policy towards North Korea,” he said.

Other experts, however, are skeptical given North Korea’s pursuit of its own nuclear weapons program after signing that deal. Director Jeong-ho Roh of the Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia Law School points out the agreement is not a treaty or include an enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance. “The legal foundations for saying that North Korea cannot have nuclear weapons doesn’t rest on the 1992 Agreement. It rests on the UN resolutions,” he said. “It’s just an agreement between North and South Korea, which is now defunct.”

More important is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which the Republic of Korea signed in July 1968. Dr. Roh says any attempt to move away from that agreement would result in significant damage to South Korea. “We can’t go outside the NPT system, because that would entail a whole host of sanctions and things going forward that South Korea cannot absorb,” he said. Although other states have managed to survive as pariahs in the international system, he doubts South Korea would be as successful. “If we did go outside the NPT system like North Korea did, South Korea simply would not survive,” said Dr. Roh.

Experts say China and North Korea would have mixed feelings about South Korea going nuclear. Officially, Beijing opposes nuclear proliferation, and despite its uneven enforcement of sanctions on Pyongyang, it’s hard to see it accepting a nuclear Seoul.  “China will be particularly concerned that South Korean nuclearization will open the door to Japan following suit, and then potentially others beyond that,”  said Michael Mazza, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. But South Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon would likely strain its relationship with the U.S., a goal shared by China and North Korea. Jaejoon Kim, a Master’s candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown University, says counter-intuitively, “secretly they might be a little happy about the situation if and only if the U.S. withdraws or reduces its presence [in the Indo-Pacific region].”

As its main security partner, the United States will have massive influence over South Korea’s decision. Choosing to develop a nuclear weapon would be a dilemma for American policymakers, said Dr. Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “That would put the U.S. in a tough position: do we support them or not?” he said. Non-proliferation has been a consistent foreign policy objective across multiple American administrations, observed Mr. Panda, particularly for states that Washington has made security commitments. “Simply put, the U.S. doesn’t want to have to finish a nuclear war that one of its allies begins under some circumstances,” he said.

An interesting finding by the Chicago Council was prestige as a motivator for a South Korean nuclear weapon. Within the 67% of such respondents, national prestige was the second highest reason given by respondents, at 26%. Dr. Roh said that there are two ways to interpret how national prestige affects the pursuit of nuclear weapons. “It’s not just having nuclear weapons that’s prestige,” he said. “But also being against nuclear weapons has that kind of prestige.”

It would be better for South Korea to continue focusing on the latter example of national prestige, where it has found better success. Mr. Kim points out that while Korea may not have the same hard power capabilities as its neighbors, it has seen success developing its soft power and cultural influence. The coercive aspect of nuclear weapons may even undermine the positive image associated with Korea abroad. “I don’t think it’s prestige, I think it’s a desire to be able to threaten genocide,” said Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Nuclear weapons “produces a form of respect that comes with being frightful and potentially barbaric, but I would say that’s not very attractive to a thinking person.”

It takes time to go from deciding to pursue a nuclear weapon, to manufacturing it, and then to actually deploying it. “There’s an interim period where you’ve created a very dangerous world for yourself,” said Mr. Mazza. Just as Israel launched strikes on Iraq and Syria to preempt them from developing nuclear weapons technology, there is a chance China or North Korea could do the same. More worryingly are the possibilities of an arms race in a multi-polar region. “The potential for miscalculation and accidents and escalation is always perennially there,” said Mr. Kim. “If you were to just add some sprinkle nuclear weapons on top of that, it would be a disaster.”

The possibility of nuclear war has taken on new urgency with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although Russian officials are trying to tamp down fears about a possible nuclear escalation, President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats have prompted governments to reconsider acquiring nuclear weapons for national security. “I think the logic of events…will move them in that direction,” former Singaporean Foreign Minister Bilahari Kausikan told The Strategist. American and South Korean policymakers must not be afraid to take seriously these larger currents in international affairs. “I think nuclear weapons are a fact of life,” said Dr. Korb. “We are very lucky that since the United States dropped those bombs in ’45, we haven’t had another nuclear attack.”

Although much American attention is focused on Eastern Europe, the U.S. and South Korea should continue working on non-proliferation efforts. By holding frank and candid conversations, “it might even diminish, over time, this perception, apparently quite popular in Korean public opinion, that nuclear weapons would be the answer to the South’s problems,” said Dr. Jonathan Pollack, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. As with many issues, the U.S.-ROK alliance remains an important tool for both sides. “There’s strength in community and alliances that exceeds any weapon,” says Mr. Sokolski. “And you dare not do anything in acquiring or using weapons to undermine that strength.”

Terrence Matsuo is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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