Nuclear Weapons May Not Be In Seoul’s Best Interest
This article was first published in The Japan Times on 5 May 2023 and is republished with permission.
Going nuclear would likely hurt rather than enhance South Korea’s global prestige
On May 2, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder confirmed that a U.S. Ohio-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine will, for the first time since the 1980s, make a visit to South Korea.
The visit is part of the bolstered extended deterrence consequent to the Washington Declaration signed by American President Joe Biden and South Korean leader Yoon Suk-yeol on April 26 – the 70th anniversary of their two countries’ bilateral alliance.
The agreement stipulates the U.S. will “make its deterrence more visible through the regular deployment of strategic assets” to South Korea and the establishment of a new Nuclear Consultative Group to facilitate greater South Korean input into how Washington prepares for threat contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. This was the price demanded by and paid to South Korea for staying inside the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.
In January this year Yoon became the first incumbent South Korean president to raise the possibility of an indigenous bomb for South Korea. Opinion polls have tracked the upwards trajectory of support for an independent nuclear deterrent capability among South Koreans, from 60% in 2016 to 71% in 2022, and almost 77% in January this year. This is preferred to stationing U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea and the public was unconcerned with potential negative repercussions for the U.S. alliance, China relations and the prospects of North Korean denuclearization.
Credibility challenges in the U.S. nuclear umbrella have combined with growing geopolitical pressures to increase the attractiveness of the nuclear option. It’s hard to disagree with President Vladimir Putin’s warning in October that the world faces the most dangerous decade since World War II. Biden too warned the same month of nuclear Armageddon. Meanwhile China has steadily increased its nuclear arsenal to third place with 410 warheads, well behind Russia and the U.S. with over 5,000 each.
Rising nationalism in the region, maritime territorial disputes, North Korea’s nuclear defiance and doubts about the reliability of U.S. deterrence were powerful catalysts for pro-nuclear arguments. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and serial nuclear rattling, indications that Iran might have resumed its pursuit of nuclear weapons and the flurry of North Korean missile tests have only heightened anxieties about the Korean Peninsula as “the world’s biggest powder keg.”
No one seriously doubts South Korea’s technical and material ability to go nuclear. Professor Suh Kune-yull, a nuclear engineer at Seoul National University, told the New York Times in 2017 that Seoul could get the bomb in six months after deciding to do so. The only serious hurdle is the political will of the administration. Most others think it would need three to five years.
The legal route would become easier if, say, North Korea conducted a seventh nuclear test and Seoul used that as the trigger to announce withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article 10 permits a state party to exit the treaty if “extraordinary events … have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” How many countries that matter to Seoul would take serious issue with this rationale?
Japan, the European Union and the United States are unlikely to put a nuclear-breakout South Korea under sanctions. With North Korea acquiring tactical nuclear warheads, ICBM capabilities, underwater nuclear attack drones and tensions between the U.S. and China rising, Americans might even come to regard a South Korean nuclear deterrent as lowering the risks of a nuclear attack on the U.S. directly. Policy cleavages between Seoul and Washington over China and evidence that American will as well as ability to underwrite global order is weakening give additional incentives. But what if South Korea’s nuclearization increased U.S. temptation to pull the plug on the alliance entirely — would Seoul be comfortable with that?
The 2022 poll did a deep dive into reasons for supporting an independent deterrent. South Koreans view North Korea as the greatest current threat but China as the greater threat in 10 years’ time. Most want the bomb as a defence against a threat other than North Korea (39%), followed by to increase national prestige (26%), counter North Korea’s threat (23%) and because of doubts over U.S. reliability (10%).
Every single one of these beliefs is contestable. South Korea’s nuclearization would likely set off a regional nuclear arms race that would dramatically heighten the risk of a catastrophe through an unstoppable escalation cycle, miscalculation, misunderstanding or accident. Against the history of bitter wartime memories and persistent distrust, the last thing East Asia needs is nuclear-tinged tensions between Seoul and Tokyo to add to its already combustible mix of geopolitical tensions.
South Korean nuclearization would destroy all efforts to denuclearize North Korea and could also kill the U.S. alliance, making Seoul more vulnerable to concerted Chinese, North Korean and Russian pressures. It is more likely to hurt than enhance Seoul’s global prestige. Moon Chung-in, President Moon Jae-in’s former special security adviser, further points out how greatly dependent South Korea’s civilian nuclear energy sector is on the special 123 Agreement under the 1954 U.S. Atomic Energy Act.
Rakesh Sood was India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. In an opinion article for the Toda Peace Institute last July, he argued that the most urgent nuclear policy task today is to ensure that the 78-year-old taboo on the use of nuclear weapons is not breached. In February, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, outlined several steps to that end. Last month, Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai International, issued an appeal for the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima this month to take “the lead in discussions on pledges of No First Use of nuclear weapons.”
Meanwhile the Washington Declaration has paused the push for South Korea’s nuclearization. Biden reiterated that the U.S. commitment to Seoul is “enduring and ironclad” and the extended deterrence is backed by the full range of U.S. capabilities, including nuclear weapons. In return Seoul expressed “full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitments and recognises the importance, necessity and benefit of its enduring reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.” It reaffirmed its commitment to the NPT “as the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime” and to the bilateral agreement on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Should Donald Trump be re-elected as U.S. president next year, however, South Korean nervousness will return and the escalatory cycle could begin again.
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Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.