A Nuclear South Korea?

Mun Suk Ahn & Young Chul Cho. International Journal; Toronto. Volume 69, Issue 1. March 2014.

Should South Korea go nuclear? North Korea’s successful launch of a long-range rocket in December 2012 and third nuclear test in February 2013 have made this controversial, somewhat taboo, issue an important security topic of public debate in today’s South Korea. Nuclear armament is debated daily on TV, internet sites, and in newspapers by academics, journalists, former government officials, politicians, and civic activists.

In fact, this issue has been debated in every decade since the 1970s. A number of nuclear-related developments in the peninsula have drawn international attention: the Park Chung-hee regime’s nuclear development in the late 1970s, South Korea’s plutonium separation experiments in 1982, the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, South Korea’s uranium enrichment experiment in 2000, and the first and second North Korean nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Nevertheless, the current atmosphere surrounding the nuclearization of Seoul represents a high point in tension, particularly at home.

Among the most conspicuous advocates of South Korea’s nuclearization are Chung Mong-jun, former chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, and Won Yoochul, former chairman of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee. According to Chung, “The question is, for South Koreans, can we live peacefully with a nuclear-armed North Korea? The answer is ‘no.’ Nuclear deterrence can be the only answer.” Won has stated that unless the North dismantles its nuclear armaments, the South will need to develop its own. Incumbent Saenuri Party chairman, Hwang Woo-yea, alluded to the similar idea that South Korea must establish a response system against nuclear weapons in order to re-establish the military balance of power.

The support for nuclear armament stands in sharp contrast to South Korea’s image as the host of the 2012 Global Nuclear Security Summit, which sought to promote nuclear non-proliferation and strengthen nuclear security. The current debates and the heightened antipathy toward the North are the result of North Korea’s successive military and nuclear provocations. Pyongyang has declared the armistice that ended the Korean War (1950-1953) null and void, threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike, ordered its missile and long-range artillery batteries into high alert in March 2013, and suspended operations at the interKorean Kaesong Industrial Complex in April 2013 in protest against the UN sanctions.

The support for nuclear armament is not a fleeting phenomenon. It is becoming widespread among South Korean conservatives, who are the dominant political force in the society. According to a Seoul-based Korea Gallup poll, in February 2013, 64 per cent of 1,006 respondents replied “yes” to the question “Should South Korea have nuclear weapons?” However, South Korea going nuclear remains doubtful in terms of both feasibility and desirability.

The Case for Nuclear Weapons

Because South Korean conservatives are separated into various constituencies, their arguments in support of nuclear armament vary as well. According to Scott Sagan, nuclear proliferation cases can be explained using three theoretical frameworks: the security model, the domestic politics model, and the symbol,/ norms model. The first attributes nuclear armament to security concerns, the second to domestic bureaucratic politics, and the third to national pride and prestige. South Korean conservatives’ arguments tend to fall into the first and third categories.

First, some advocates of South Korean nuclear possession hold that it is impossible for South Korea to defend itself against an attack from the nuclear-armed North without nuclear weapons. They cite the sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the Yeonpyeong Island attack in 2010. Cho Gap-je, a conservative journalist, contends that a non-nuclear South Korea is utterly exposed to attacks from the nuclear North, making the South militarily subordinate to its enemy. Even though proponents of this argument seldom mention the probability that the North will use nuclear weapons to attack South Korea, they are concerned that nuclear North Korea is free to make provocations and thus assume the hegemony in North-South relations. This argument holds the greatest appeal for the South Korean public, both logically and emotionally.

Second, some support the South’s nuclear armament as leverage vis-à-vis North Korea and China. They stand by the negotiation model that emphasizes a nuclear state’s ability to bring the power of nuclear warheads to the negotiating table. Kim Dae-joong, a newspaper columnist, argues that the North’s nuclear disarmament can be achieved only in a situation of nuclear balance between the two Koreas. At the same time, some conservative politicians and activists argue that South Korean nuclear weapons, or attempts to go nuclear, will force China to put more pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

Third, some defend a nuclear South Korea in the belief that going nuclear will heighten the country’s national prestige and reinforce its sovereignty. South Korea’s successful economic development and political transition to democracy have contributed to a greater assertiveness. This faction works within the symbol framework, envisioning nuclear capabilities as a potent symbol of state power. When then foreign minister Ryu Myung-hwan said in May 2009, “We need to discuss nuclear sovereignty seriously,” he was deliberately heightening the ambivalence between military armament and peaceful nuclear sovereignty at a time when South Koreans were debating their response to the second North Korean nuclear test. Proponents of the sovereignty case hold that South Korea will restore the integrity of its sovereignty only when it obtains nuclear parity with North Korea.

Moreover, advocates of South Korean nuclear armament now doubt the effectiveness of the American nuclear umbrella. Although South Korea and the United States formed the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee in December 2011, which was designed to discuss measures to deal with North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and periodically observe and assess the effectiveness of the extended deterrence, and although the United States has frequently emphasized that it will provide extended nuclear deterrence, South Koreans fear that President Obama’s present initiative-a “Nuclear Free World”-will weaken the US nuclear umbrella. Japan and Turkey share this discomfort with the US commitment. A weakened US nuclear umbrella would, the conservatives believe, be to North Korea’s advantage. The contradiction between a “Nuclear Free World” and extended nuclear deterrence continues to concern South Korean conservatives.

The Changing International Order in Northeast Asia

Currently, there is no well-organized, collective economic or security institution in Northeast Asia, nor is one anticipated in the near future. South Korea, China, and Japan remain embroiled in disputes concerning Japanese wrongdoings during the first half of the twentieth century. American dominance is diminishing as China’s power is increasing. South Korea’s exports to China in 2012 accounted for 24.5 per cent of total exports, compared to only 10.7 per cent to the United States.

Economically, China’s hegemony in the region is indisputable, whereas US military power remains influential and acts as an effective balance. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that US-China conflicts have surfaced in the region. In response to a series of provocations from North Korea, China has been more interested in engaging with Pyongyang, while the US has put more importance on strengthening sanctions. The sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 have highlighted these different positions. China stressed that North and South Korea should try to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula, while the US called for reinforcing economic sanctions against the North. Although China sometimes cooperates with the UN or the US in the imposition of sanctions, it is premature to conjecture that China is ready to abandon the North. When, in March 2013, the Chinese government dismissed the deputy editor of Study Times-the publication of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China-over his article for the Financial Times insisting that China give up on North Korea, China broadcast its intention to keep Pyongyang as its close ally.

The conflict and instability in the region have led some states to reduce their dependence on either China or the US to pursue “self-help,” including considering the option of going nuclear. In his book Strategic Visions: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski suggests that countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, and Israel, which rely on the United States’ extended nuclear deterrence for security, will have to seek security from nuclear weapons of their own or from the extended deterrence of another power, likely Russia, China, or India, if they lose confidence in standing US guarantees.

Since the late nineteenth century, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States have competed for dominance in Northeast Asia. Once a dominant nation emerged following a period of competition and subsequent war-for example, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and the Second World War-the fate of Korea was to become subservient to that nation. As South Korea acknowledges this tragic history, it may well look for a way to maintain its independence and national integrity. Advocates of a nuclear South Korea view going nuclear as the most reliable way to achieve this goal.

Yet, progressives in the South argue that denuclearization through negotiation is both more desirable, since the probability of mutual destruction would be increased if the South became a nuclear power, and more feasible.

Is Going Nuclear Desirable or Feasible?

Rational deterrence theorists-Kenneth Waltz chief among them-claim that nuclear proliferation leads to stability since nuclear weapons are controlled by rational leaders’ careful decisions. They argue that nuclear warheads can contribute to stable deterrence if states avoid preventive strikes, develop nuclear weapons that can survive a first strike, avert accidental nuclear war, and prevent terrorist theft of nuclear weapons.

However, stability can also be affected by the degree of internal stability and the command-control arrangement of each state, as well as by regional environments. In practice, rational deterrence theory is difficult to apply to the Korean peninsula. A number of battles have broken out between the two Koreas since the 1953 truce agreement, undeterred by the fact that the North has had nuclear arms since 2006. In particular, on the West Sea of the peninsula, the two Koreas do not agree on the Northern Limit Line (NLL). This disagreement has led to the first Yeonpyeong Sea Battle (June 1999), the second Yeonpyeong Sea Battle (June 2002), the Daecheong Sea Battle (November 2009), the sinking of the corvette Cheonan (March 2010), and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island (November 2010). Since the North infiltrates the NLL many times each year, no improvement is expected in the near future. Under these antagonistic conditions, the nuclear arming of both North and South Korea could accidentally result in a nuclear war.

Organization theorists observe that military organizations often act in ways that contradict rational behaviours and lead to accidental or deliberate nuclear war. The huge military organizations in North and South Korea-with more than 1,000,000 and 600,000 troops, respectively-are not likely to be exceptions, especially given the very real tensions and recurring military conflicts.

Furthermore, a corollary of Seoul’s nuclear armament would almost certainly be Pyongyang’s reinforcement of its own nuclear power. North Korea is reportedly trying to increase its stock of, and miniaturize, its nuclear warheads. The South’s nuclearization would only hasten that process. It would also instigate a serious arms race in Northeast Asia by pressing Japan and Taiwan to go nuclear. In Japan, many politicians and activists are now arguing for nuclear armament. The current Abe government has sought to revise the constitution, which bans Japan from rearming and waging war, in order to change the status of the Self-Defense Forces and to restore Japan’s right to use military power abroad.

An arms race would not only undermine stability in Northeast Asia but also prevent states in the region from developing economically. This consequence contradicts the argument presented by South Korean conservatives who value both strong national defence and economic growth.

In addition, the nuclearization of South Korea would seriously undercut the country’s close ties with the United States. The United States has long opposed Seoul possessing its own nuclear weapons, fearing that it would result in an arms race in Northeast Asia and damage to the integrity of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Washington would, therefore, reduce its military cooperation with the South if it developed nuclear weapons. This situation would be detrimental to Seoul’s security because South Korea still requires American military intelligence, which is critical to the operation of South Korean armed forces.

The Seoul government fully understands the reasons against a nuclear South Korea and often reaffirms its desire for direct denuclearization talks with the North. This has been consistent government policy. South Korea is equipped with the technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear warheads within a few years of any decision to go nuclear. The South is the world’s fifth-largest producer of atomic energy, and it has not suffered a nuclear accident since the beginning of nuclear energy production in 1978. The literature on nuclearization does not derive consistent predictions from these circumstances. On the one hand, the theory that states equipped with cutting-edge nuclear technology tend to be nuclear-armed would point to the likelihood that Seoul will go nuclear. However, motivational theory, which emphasizes incentives and intentions, rather than technology, in relation to nuclear armament, leads to the opposite conclusion. In fact, the South has the capability, but not the intention to go nuclear.

Two further issues related to the South’s going nuclear remain unresolved: the transfer of wartime operational control and the prestige of the scientific community. The US is scheduled to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea in December 2015, according to the South Korea-US agreement. South Korean conservatives have been worrying that the subsequent dissolution of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command will undermine the South’s national defence. The concern is likely to grow as the date of the transfer approaches and may buttress the argument for Seoul’s nuclear armament.

At the same time, scientists may argue that further developments in technology and scientific knowledge will enhance the prestige of the South Korean scientific community. In the case of India’s nuclear development, the scientific community was motivated to produce nuclear weapons in order to demonstrate its capabilities. In South Korea, the uranium enrichment experiment in 2000 was attributed to several scientists’ desire to confirm their capabilities. Nuclear technology in South Korea is constantly developing and scientists’ desire to increase their prestige may become a factor in the debate.

What Should the United States Do?

Since this issue is a function of South Korea-US and North Korea-US relations, the US needs to consider its policy options. Strengthening the South Korea-US alliance is a basic step in weakening the nuclear threat from the North. As a more concrete measure, the US will have to speed up the extension of nuclear deterrence.

What about the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons? A number of government officials, analysts, and activists favour this idea. However, there are strong reasons against it. First, it would undermine the 1992 inter-Korean Denuclearization Declaration and damage the South’s case for denuclearization. Second, it would call into question the reliability of US foreign policy. The United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 as part of its global strategy to reduce nuclear arms. Third, it would strengthen the perception of South Korea as a US protégé or protectorate. For these reasons, redeployment should be removed from the list of US policy options.

Reinforcing the US nuclear umbrella and redeploying US nuclear weapons are merely measures to reduce the North Korean nuclear threat: the more critical objective is the eradication of that threat. Since Pyongyang justifies its nuclear development on the basis of the US nuclear threat, the US is compelled to address the North Korean nuclear issue. And since this issue is also pertinent to preventing further nuclear proliferation, which is one of the priorities in US foreign policy, the question becomes, how can the US denuclearize North Korea?

There are three main options: military attack, economic sanctions, and negotiation. Some Americans argue for the first option. For instance, Jeremi Suri, professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, explicitly asserts the need for a direct attack on Pyongyang: “The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.” However, this option could bring about retaliatory attacks on South Korea and Japan, leading to a major, all-out war in Northeast Asia. Furthermore, Pyongyang is now believed to have six to ten nuclear weapons, rendering Suri’s proposal more difficult if not infeasible.

The second option, economic sanctions, is being applied mainly through UN Security Council resolutions. Sanctions affect North Korea by strictly preventing the country from acquiring weapons, arms-related materials, and materials involved in illicit activities. However, North Korea has always weathered any international sanctions imposed against it, and China has helped it to do so by expanding economic ties and providing food and energy aid. Trade with China represented 70.1 per cent of North Korea’s total foreign trade in 2011, a large increase from 39.1 per cent in 2006.

The third, and arguably the best, option is negotiation. It is, of course, difficult to negotiate with Pyongyang, but striking a deal is not impossible, as seen in the case of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Only US efforts to negotiate such a deal can determine whether it is feasible. Through its nuclear program, the North is seeking to gain security and economic benefits; thus, the program could be dismantled by ensuring that these two requirements are met by other means. Pyongyang’s food shortage, ongoing since the early 1990s, and the decrease in international aid have greatly increased its need for talks with the US. Moreover, the current Kim Jong Un regime is trying to improve the North Korean economy. In June 2012, it introduced the New Economic Management System which authorized the state firm to decide what to produce and how to sell, and allowed 30 per cent of agricultural production to be allocated to the farmers, based on their performance.

In South Korea, the Park Geun Hye government has made an effort to soften the previous government’s hard line toward Pyongyang. In fact, most South Korean presidents have tried to hold a summit with their counterparts from the North, in part to secure their reputation as having contributed toward eventual North-South reunification.

The United States can take advantage of these situations in the two Koreas. Some observers in Seoul suspect that the Obama administration has already shifted its policy toward the North Korean nuclear problem from denuclearization to nonproliferation. Washington’s lukewarm attitude and reliance on “strategic patience” have raised this suspicion, which is undoubtedly conducive to the argument in favour of South Korean nuclear armament. Holding active and comprehensive negotiations, whether they are multilateral or bilateral, constitutes the most pragmatic and workable route to achieving the North’s denuclearization and consequently maintaining a nuclear-free South Korea.

Together with North Korean denuclearization, the US needs to lead the initiative of creating a regional nuclear-free zone (NFZ) as a long-term policy. South Korea and Japan seem most likely to participate in such an initiative since they have officially committed themselves to staying nuclear weapon-free. However, they are in dispute over Dokdo, an island in the East Sea, and the distorted history between them renders their cooperation less probable. US efforts may help them overcome this obstacle and collaborate on establishing an NFZ. Once achieved, the zone needs to be expanded to include Taiwan and a denuclearized North Korea, and in the long term it can be developed into a regional security framework.

In summary, in order to undermine the arguments for South Korean nuclear armament, the United States needs to strengthen its nuclear umbrella for South Korea, push for nuclear talks with North Korea, and try to form an NFZ in Northeast Asia.