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South Korea on the Fence: Nukes or No Nukes?

By
30 September 2011


South Korea faces a critical decision: whether or not to go nuclear, a decision that has US defense and diplomatic elites on edge. Talk of a nuclear option was anathema in South Korea only a decade ago. Official expression of a desire for nuclear weapons development has, until now, been politically and diplomatically taboo. To date, South Korean confidence in the US nuclear umbrella and the stationing of US military forces on ROK territory have played a large role in reinforcing that taboo.

However, a harbinger of change came in 2006 and 2009. While North Korea bolstered itself against hostile actions from the United States, such as joint ROK-US military exercises and economic sanctions, its nuclear testing galvanized South Koreans to become more vocal in their support of a ROK nuclear capability. Inter-Korean military power has always been unequal, but this asymmetry in nuclear weapons has now caught the public’s attention. “South Korea needs nuclear weapons” now underpins the rhetoric of many right-leaning pundits.

Recently, leading columnists in the mainstream media and conservative politicians have come out in support of public debate over Seoul’s potential nuclear future. In January, Kim Dae Joong wrote in The Chosun Ilbo,Time for S. Korea to Develop Its Own Nuclear Arms,” and another pro-nuclear op-ed on February 8. Kim, one of the most influential journalists in South Korea, is not alone in his beliefs. In fact, the nation’s three most widely-read dailies—The Chosun Ilbo, The JoongAng Ilbo, and The Dong-A Ilbo—all hint of Seoul’s need for enhanced nuclear capabilities.

Similarly, National Assemblyman Chung Mong Joon, former chairman of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), has been reported as saying, “Instead of an ambiguous U.S.’s (sic) nuclear umbrella, reintroduction of the tactical nuclear weapons would be a negotiating card.” Chung asserted in a February 24 press release, that out of 1,000 South Koreans polled, 34.3 percent supported the necessity of nuclear weapons against the North’s nuclear weapons, and 32.5 percent “relatively supported” it.

Given Chung’s political weight as a presidential contender for the GNP, the six-term National Assemblyman’s remarks were enough to shock US policymakers, the majority of whom would tend to reject the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons.

A wider range of voices can be heard in policy debates that believe South Korea’s future lies in arming itself with either American tactical nuclear weapons or those developed indigenously. This policy stance seems a throwback to the policies of former ROK President Park Chung Hee, a keen advocate of the development of nuclear weapons program. While admitting that continued reliance on the US nuclear deterrent provides South Korea economic and security options, some political elites have called for a reconsideration of the ROK’s policy of nuclear abstention. In short, the true-blue pundits’ tenacity is by no means media psychodrama. A potential future with nuclear weapons is quickly coming into focus.

A Broken Window: A Denuclearization Pact Collecting Dust

In recent years, right-wing groups have been calling for the Lee Myung Bak administration to nullify the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, signed in 1992, on the grounds that the North has already broken the pact. Strong advocates of developing an independent South Korean nuclear capability in the wake of the North’s provocative nuclear tests, point to the first clause of the agreement: “South and North Korea shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.”[1] They argue that under these specific terms, the agreement is already defunct. Judging from the history of North Korean nuclear weapons development harking back to the early 1980s, the 1992 pact was essentially dead-on-arrival.

When the agreement was signed, the North had assured the South that it would uphold the six-clause declaration, “[I]n order to eliminate the danger of nuclear war through the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, to create conditions and an environment favourable to peace and the peaceful unification of Korea, and thus to contribute to the peace and security of Asia and the world.”[2] Though, in light of the North’s continued nuclear activities, these sentiments seem to have been less than sincere.

Many now suggest that South Korea has the right to renounce the already crippled pact. For starters, the Bush administration officially declared the 1994 Agreed Framework null and void in 2002, in response to North Korea’s refusal to halt their enrichment program. Even prior to the Bush administration’s declaration, the North was believed to have privately conveyed to James Kelly, then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, during a visit to Pyongyang, that they viewed the 1992 agreement as null. As such, many conservatives argue that the 1992 pact has been reduced to a mere plaque that simply gathers dust, and that the North’s threats and violations provide ample justification for South Korea to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.

Thus, while pro-nuclear supporters deny that South Korea has any intention of developing nuclear weapons at the moment, they do not rule out the possibility of future political leaders deciding to do so.

A Third Nuclear Test?

North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 deteriorated support for the denuclearization of the peninsula, ushering in a new era marked by asymmetrical military posturing. If the North was discovered to have actual nuclear warheads, then the South would feel compelled to acquire a deterrent stockpile independently and in spite of America’s committed nuclear umbrella policy.

Furthermore, Siegfried Hecker, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University who had first revealed the North’s clandestine uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, alleged on September 9, 2011, that Pyongyang might seek to launch a third nuclear test to enable it to develop a small fissile warhead that can be carried by a missile. A third nuclear test could lead the South to further reconsider its nuclear policy. And while Seoul is currently unlikely to develop a nuclear weapons capability, the prospects of this changing cannot be disregarded, and should not be taken for granted.

In much the same vein, many South Koreans believe that there has been little penalty against North Korea for its nuclear development, and are upset at the lackadaisical international response to the North’s highly enriched uranium program. As a result, they have become increasingly alarmed by Kim Jong Il’s nuclear ambitions.

No one doubts that President Obama’s vision of “nuclear-free world” deserves to be honored, but is it wise for the US to cling to this kind of global agenda while inter-Korean tensions run high and while North Korea’s military posturing and nuclear build up are likely to grow in the lead up to becoming a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012 (and during a critical succession process)? Is it wise to try to deal with North Korea’s nuclear troubles at a time of nuclear turmoil, such as the Fukushima catastrophe, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit to be held in Seoul next March? From this political context, a question arises: Has Korea distorted the global agenda?

While the Obama administration has already made it clear that Washington will not “buy the same (nuclear) horse” for a third time, many people suspect that the US aims to prevent North Korea’s nuclear-related materials and technologies from falling into the hands of other states or terrorist groups rather than to eliminate the communist regime’s hidden nuclear weapons and materials. Only if sensitive materials and weapons are perfectly controlled inside the North would the so-called status quo policy be a viable option for policymakers in Washington in terms of the “managing” the peninsula. But, America’s failure to deter the North Korean regime from testing a third nuclear device could trigger South Korea to speed up its nuclear capabilities in the foreseeable future.

Inter-Korean Factors

With North Korean nuclear threats escalating, where will solutions come from? Several years ago, it seemed as though the sunshine policy could be a big part of the answer. The North Korea-friendly policies were designed to address military, economic, and political problems all at once. But the hallmark policy of the liberal Kim Dae Jung government was unable to resolve the North’s nuclear ambitions. Consequently, the sunshine policy has become a lightning rod for ideological criticism.

Furthermore, ideological debates that could move South Korea toward a nuclear weapons capability are likely to arise in the heat of the election season next year. Given North Korea’s slogan to become a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012 and the planned presidential elections of South Korea, the United States, and Russia, and the endorsed power succession of China in 2012, there is a high possibility that North Korea will initiate further provocations like the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island incidents in 2010, under the banner of Songun Jongchi or Military-First Politics in the near future.

Some North Korea watchers predict cautiously that 2012 may be the debut year for Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s youngest son and apparent heir. Kim Jong Un is already a key figure on the National Defense Commission, the North’s most powerful body. It is even likely that the young four-star general will feel compelled to carry out a “much stronger mission” than the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island so as to earn the support of senior generals who experienced the fratricidal Korean War.

In this context, Kim Jong Un’s potential for military adventurism points to a worsening confrontation between the two Koreas. Park Geun Hye, currently the front-runner in South Korean presidential polls with about 40 percent support, recently stressed in her Foreign Affairs op-ed that, “If North Korea  launches another military strike against the South, Seoul must respond immediately to ensure that Pyongyang understands the costs of provocation.”[3] She reiterated that, “South Korea must show Pyongyang that the North will pay a heavy price for its military and nuclear threats,” adding that “If North Korea undertakes additional nuclear tests, South Korea must consider all possible responses in consultation with its principal ally, the United States, and other key global partners.”[4] The former GNP chair Park has tried to distance herself from the current President Lee over the stalled North Korean policies.

By contending that the five other member states in the long-stalled Six Party Talks, except North Korea, have been using the wrong approach, hardliners are likely to urge President Lee, whose term ends in February 2013, to give the next president wide political space and diplomatic support on the nullification of a 1992 denuclearization agreement, and to work towards developing a counterbalance to the North’s military capability.

Many South Koreans believe that nuclear weapons are the answer. However, a governmental response to the demands of “nuclear weapons populism” would significantly alter the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

ROK-US Alliance in Tatters

While President Obama most recently called South Korea one of America’s greatest allies at the Conference of the American Legion, the robust ROK-US alliance is emotionally fading away. While there is no longer deep anti-Americanism in South Korea, the alliance is already in tatters. Instead of cementing the mutual partnership, for example, the US openly supported to call the body of water between Korea and Japan the “Sea of Japan.” According to the recently released diplomatic secret cable (dated on April 6, 2006) over the Dokdo islet issues, the then U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, Japan, reportedly stated that “The Koreans are behaving irrationally, and the United States is concerned that they may do something crazy, causing a major problem.”[5]

In addition, the slow ratification process of the Korea-US (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement shows a widening crack in the value of the alliance. Despite the fact that South Korea and the United States have few security differences, South Koreans believe that there is already a rearguard action underway by some policymakers to delay or kill this pact.

These cases offer a glimpse into the weights and depths of relations between the ROK and US governments, and while inconvenient, appear unlikely to ruffle diplomatic relations very soon. But a larger segment of the Korean population is beginning to question their confidence in American backing. They fear that despite the US nuclear guarantee, at the moment of truth, the US would pull back, thus increasing South Korea’s exposure to North Korean blackmail as well as to Chinese influence. These changes in perception are the result of shift in the paradigm that both countries in the alliance have enjoyed for more than fifty years. Given the current political and economic climate, these perceptions are likely to gain more traction.

Although Seoul cannot afford a complete break with Washington, there is a growing desire to put some distance between itself and its long patron. However, a severe crisis in Washington-Seoul relations could create a disastrous situation on the peninsula. Former president Roh Moo Hyun once insinuated, while in office, that erstwhile South Korean leaders had virtually entrusted their ultimate security to Washington. He viewed ROK-US relations as “to count on Big Brother, hiding behind the buttocks of the U.S.”

Roh’s argument was that the alliance was uneven and that efforts to improve independent national defenses were thus interpreted as a military decoupling from the United States. This view has caused some to question whether South Korea as a sovereign state ranks the alliance higher than self-reliance in terms of advancing state security.

Still today, critics argue that the ROK-US alliance has been an impediment to South Korea’s self-defense capabilities and will continue to be constrained under such agreements as the cooperative agreement between the US and ROK governments concerning civil uses of atomic energy and the Missile Technology Control Regime. Thus, as the role of the US begins to wane in the region, some South Koreans have begun to consider the possibility of a domestic nuclear weapons program.

Sharpening Nuclear Diplomacy

How different would North Korea be today if there had been no nuclear weapons program in the communist regime? What if the dangerous program had been foiled or bungled? One obvious answer is that South Koreans would probably have cared less about nuclear weapons than they do today. Sadly, short-term ideological fights take precedence over long-term strategic decisions.

In this context, the idea is not to turn a blind eye to the existent threats emanating from North Korea’s demonstrated possession of nuclear weapons, but rather to promote greater sophistication in eliminating the nuclear risks.

Unlike the de facto nuclear armed state of North Korea, however, South Korea cannot and will not pursue its nuclear dreams. Nuclear build up would require consensus—the whole (or majority of) people coming together in agreement. In truth, most South Koreans would prefer to “throw some sand in the wheels of all the nuclear-haves,” rather than seek the option of dealing a knockout blow to North Korea’s nuclear forces.

Just as North Korea’s nuclear tests have fundamentally altered domestic public opinion on South Korea’s nuclear policy, it is urgent to strengthen the South’s national defense preparedness without any kind of nuclear weapons on its territory. That does not mean that South Korea wants armed conflicts with North Korea. To the contrary, the claims that South Korea should possess nuclear weapons is an indication of the topsy-turvy world in which common people feel more threatened by the unpredictable regime in Pyongyang than policymakers may think.

The pursuit of a nuclear-armed South Korea represents a nightmarish error of policy and national strategy and a misunderstanding of what a globally responsible country must do to keep the world safe. If the South Korean government bends to conservative demands for matching not only North Korean nuclear capabilities but the military build up of other regional powers as well, the prospect for peace and stability on a nuclear weapons-free peninsula will be bleak. As big problems call for big solutions, to South Koreans, the possession of nuclear weapons would be a big problem. That is why the Obama administration must invest more in nuclear diplomacy with South Korea, the host country of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit.


[1] ROK-DPRK Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula 20 January 1992 http://www.nti.org/db/china/engdocs/snkdenuc.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Park, Geun-hye. “A New Korea,” Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 2011. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/68136/park-geun-hye/a-new-kind-of-korea.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “New Japan FM says Korea `illegally occupying` Dokdo islets”,” The Dong-A Ilbo, September 6, 2011.  http://english.donga.com/srv/service.php3?biid=2011090713418.

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One Response to “South Korea on the Fence: Nukes or No Nukes?”

  1. [...] – Henry Siegman, NYR Blog U.S. Values Exceptional, Not Universal – Robert Merry, National Interest South Korea: Nukes or No Nukes? – Byung Chul Lee, 38 North Korea at a Crossroads – Chang Dal-joong, JoongAng [...]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.