Peace and Security in Northeast Asia By Herbert Wulf  |  11 May, 2023

Nuclear Clouds Over the 38th Parallel

Image: myella/

North Korea has continued to advance its nuclear weapons program and has launched more than 100 missiles since the beginning of 2022, some with intercontinental range. In South Korea, this is causing unrest and fears of an attack from the North. The government and a large majority of the population are uncertain about the credibility of US protection. According to polls, more than 70 percent of South Koreans are in favour of their own nuclear armament. 

Will the world soon experience a military show-down, possibly even a nuclear confrontation, along the 38th parallel, the highly armed so-called "Demilitarized Zone", the border between North and South Korea? In any case, the days of what was once called "sunshine policy"—the dialogue between the North and the South or the time of joint North-South Olympic team as in Pyeongchang in 2018—are long gone. So are the diplomatic attempts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear armament.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has been in office for over a year, has reacted quite differently to the rapid expansion of the missile and nuclear program and the constant bellicose provocations from the North compared to his predecessor Moon Jae-in, who was pushing for détente and trying to ease tensions. With a clearly confrontational policy and a strengthening of the armed forces, Yoon counters the rearmament of his northern neighbour. Now the taboo subject of nuclear armament of South Korea has reached the political mainstream. The President himself mentioned this possibility recently during a discussion on defence policy. The fear of the nuclear-armed neighbour in the North is growing. With this baggage, President Yoon travelled to Washington at the end of April, where the South Korean debate was noted with great irritation.

In South Korea's 70-year history, possible nuclear armament has been twice before on the agenda. In the 1970s, South Korea operated a secret nuclear program. When the U.S. government learned of this, it took an ultimatum to persuade South Korea to abandon the program. The U.S. government, closely allied with South Korea since the Korean War (1950-53), threatened to withdraw all U.S. troops if South Korea continued to pursue nuclear armament. The South Korean government took the U.S. ultimatum seriously and opted for continued military support from the U.S. despite the humiliating U.S. defeat in Vietnam that had just occurred. As a result, South Korea relinquished its military nuclear program.

Then, in 1991—both Koreas were then members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—U.S. President George H. W. Bush announced the withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. In return, North and South Korea agreed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. It is clear, at least since 2006 after the first North Korean nuclear test, that this agreement was not worth the paper it was written on – as is the case for a series of subsequent negotiations and agreements on North Korea's nuclear armament.

In South Korea, there is growing concern about whether the US is really prepared to defend the country. Pyongyang's modern nuclear arsenal is capable now of destroying US cities. Would the U.S. administration accept this risk to its own people by defending South Korea if Kim Jong-un's forces attacked Seoul? These were the questions President Yoon raise in Washington at the end of April.

The Biden administration is absolutely opposed to South Korean nuclearization, not least because it wants to prevent a domino effect in Asia at all costs, especially in Japan and Taiwan. More nuclear bombs do not make the world safer, according to the credo in Washington. The current international order is based, among other things, on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Some of the countries that do not comply with this treaty (such as Iran and North Korea) must pay a high price. Would this fate also threaten South Korea, or would the U.S., as in the case of Israel and India, tacitly recognise it as a nuclear power? And how would Beijing react? Would China try to impose sanctions on South Korea and try to isolate it?

Today's debate in South Korea has a history. As in the case of the European NATO countries, former U.S. President Donald Trump called South Korea a security free rider and threatened to make South Korea pay for the deployment of U.S. troops. In Seoul, people are concerned and wonder how the American promises to defend South Korea will develop in future, possibly again under a President Trump.

During President Yoon's visit to the United States, on April 26 the American and South Korean governments presented the so-called Washington Declaration. Not only does it renew America's defence promise, but the U.S. also agreed to periodically send nuclear submarines and nuclear bombers to the region, something that hasn't happened for decades. In addition, Seoul will be involved in nuclear planning. They announced the “establishment of a new Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) to strengthen extended deterrence, discuss nuclear and strategic planning, and manage the threat to the nonproliferation regime posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).”

Both sides commit themselves “to engage in deeper, cooperative decision-making in the field of nuclear deterrence." In return, South Korea once again renounces its own nuclear weapons program. It is possible that this declaration eventually amounts to the nuclear sharing concept as in Europe. This averts South Korea's own path to the atomic bomb for the time being. But these plans expand the Korean conflict by an important new nuclear scenario. Reactions in the region were inevitable. Beijing's Foreign Ministry criticised Washington and Seoul for "deliberately stirring up tensions, provoking confrontation and playing up threats.”

The reactions in Pyongyang were even harsher. Dictator Kim Jong-un's influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, said this agreement reflects "the most hostile and aggressive will of action" that will "only result in making peace and security of Northeast Asia and the world be exposed to more serious danger." Without even mentioning North Korea's nuclear efforts, which are condemned by the United Nations, she stated: "The more the enemies are dead set on staging nuclear war exercises, and the more nuclear assets they deploy in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula, the stronger the exercise of our right to self-defence will become in direct proportion to them."

Obviously, the signs point to extended military deterrence, possibly even military confrontation. The line of communication between Pyongyang and Seoul is broken, as is that between Washington and Beijing on North Korea.  Washington, too, is now taking a tougher line.  President Joe Biden stated: "A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action." This unveiled statement about "regime change" is understood in Pyongyang as a provocation. According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA): “Under such situation, it is quite natural for the DPRK to bolster up its military deterrence corresponding to the grave security environment of the present and the future."

Dark clouds are gathering along the 38th parallel and, similar to the Ukraine war in Europe, there is no easing of the explosive situation in sight.


Related articles:

Nuclear Armament is a Lose-Lose-Lose for South Korea (3-minute read)

Balanced Leadership Needed for Peace on the Korean Peninsula (3-minute read)

Yoon’s Pursuit of Strong Security Mustn’t Cost Public’s Peace of Mind, Argues Expert (3-minute read)

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.