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A path to nuclear armament

Nov 26,2019
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Lee Byong-chul
The author is an assistant professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

South Korea will go nuclear sooner than you may imagine, unless North Korea stops heading toward a new vector of nuclear capabilities. The possession of nuclear weapons is not because of misguided political leaders, or because of bureaucratic pathologies, or because of nationalistic domestic politics. It is entirely because of hostile North Korea that may believe that its arsenal will transform not only inter-Korean relations but also the asymmetric relations with the United States as well. But it is clear that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities do not match well with those of the United States, so that the communist regime continues to advance deterrent arsenals technologically as a hedge against the U.S. Accordingly, North Korea’s nuclear mismatch or imbalance (with the U.S.) has forced the regime to focus its nuclear tactics on South Korea.

A growing chorus of voices in South Korea is calling for arming the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ with destructive nuclear weapons, instead of being reminded of the rosy picture of the denuclearization of Kim Jong-un, the young nuclear proliferator in North Korea. Given that Kim may attempt to put the Korean Peninsula into confusion when — and if — he cannot strike a deal on denuclearization with the myopic Trump administration, South Koreans find it hard to remain optimistic at this point. Indeed, low voices quietly glide over toward the nuclear balancing, which looks strikingly different from what South Korean security strategists concluded: relying on the extended deterrence provided by the United States in the name of the robust alliance between Seoul and Washington. South Korea’s nuclearization is a question not of if but of when.

Today, South Koreans seem much more doubtful of the security guarantee of the Trump administration than ever before. In particular, more conservatives, who are traditionally U.S.-friendly and anti-communism advocates, do not hide their uneasiness against Mr. Trump, since the ‘herky-jerky’ leader allegedly infuriated many South Koreans, for example, by mocking that “It’s easier to get a billion dollars from South Korea than to get $114.13 from a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn” when touching upon one of the hot-button issues — the burden-sharing of military expenditure for U.S. personnel present here in South Korea.

On top of this, Trump has conspicuously tolerated North Korean missile tests that directly threaten South Korea, which hosts the third-largest contingent of overseas U.S. troops and is one of the world’s biggest buyers of U.S. arms and home to a U.S. anti-ballistic missile-defense system. There is no question that South Korea was badly treated by the inconsiderate leader of its ally, who bragged about letters from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. From the perspective of moderate South Koreans, likewise, Trump’s perceptions on the alliance are seen as extremely petty and bigoted.

In short, the Trump administration is focusing on the off-shore balancing strategy, which will eventually compel the left-leaning Moon Jae-in government to rebalance the fragile alliance and allow South Korea to move closer to China than many analysts at Washington-based think tanks anticipate. Such a de-coupling would present a long-term threat to peace and stability on the peninsula.

The rise of China and the continued de-coupling of America would both trigger the build-up of conventional weapons and, accordingly, of nuclear weapons in the region, possibly worsening regional security relations. It is no wonder that the call for nuclear armament should be rising once again in the wake of the feudalistic Kim regime’s die-hard missile launches. Especially amongst conservative experts and politicians, claims — such as “Deploying nuclear weapons will increase the bargaining leverage on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons,” “We’ve come to the point to make the final decision,” “Placing nuclear weapons and plans for denuclearization need to be incorporated into nuclear talks,” and “Will the U.S. nuclear umbrella cover South Korea?” — are gaining weight.

Although South Korean policymakers are unlikely to push for an independent nuclear deterrent as long as the U.S. retains its faith in the credibility of the extended deterrence toward South Korea, Mr. Trump’s flagrant disregard for the traditional alliance has made South Koreans feel pessimistic about whether their country can continue to depend on the U.S., irrespective of the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. History shows that the intent hidden in late President Park Chung-hee’s nuclear aspirations was to encourage a robust U.S. commitment to safeguard South Korean security, for fear of the U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula. In order to stop the pullout of American forces from the peninsula with President Nixon’s ‘Guam Doctrine’ in July 1965, in truth, President Park suggested the use of Jeju Island as the U.S. nuclear base in October 1969. In 2005, President Roh Moo-hyun(2003-2008), a left-leaning leader, also ordered his aide to review South Korea’s potential nuclear fuel cycle technologies as the deep discord of cooperation between Seoul and Washington emerged.

It is essential that Washington help denuclearize North Korea and restore the alliance in the region. South Korean policy elites understand that the country is fundamentally responsible for ensuring its security in an anarchic world. Support for nuclear weapons is the fashion, and South Korean decision-makers do not want to make the public debate over the development of their own nuclear capability by tossing in the nuclearization of North Korea. But they, who I presume are thinkers rather than strategic ‘do-ers,’ will effectively and wisely respond to the security fluctuations in the region. By the same token, there will be more South Koreans to believe the idea that the southern part of the Hermit Kingdom could aspire to be a nuclear-armed country is no longer considered as either ludicrous or sinister. The need for South Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is clear but it can come about only with deliberate speed.