South Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Temptation

The warm welcome accorded to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Washington this week reaffirmed the close alliance. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has relied on the US to deter threats from North Korea. But with the US in economic decline and China as a rising power in Northeast Asia, South Koreans, particularly conservatives, increasingly question the endurance of that alliance, explains Lee Byong-Chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, who served on the foreign and national-security policy-planning staff of two South Korean presidents during the 1990s. North Korea has not abided by agreements to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free, and South Koreans are troubled by asymmetrical military development, especially considering their technological capability is vastly superior to the North’s. A nonproliferation policy contributes to the peninsula’s peace and stability and should not be taken for granted. Lee urges the US to invest in diplomacy with South Korea. – YaleGlobal

South Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Temptation

Alarmed by the US in decline, South Korean hardliners push for nuclear-weapon development
Lee Byong-Chul
Friday, October 14, 2011

SEOUL: Talk of a nuclear option was anathema in South Korea only a decade ago. Any official expression of nuclear-weapons development in South Korea was once viewed as political and diplomatic suicide, and the policy was long welcomed by American defense and diplomatic elites.

But with the US enduring economic hardship, its global influence in decline, South Korea frets about having lost the attention of its nuclear protector.

This has only added to a rising chorus among the mainstream media and conservative politicians calling for review of South Korea’s “no nuke” pledge.The hardliners point out that the country’s future lies in arming South Korea with nuclear weapons, harkening the strategy of South Korean President Park Chung-hee, a keen advocate for the development of a nuclear-weapons program who was assassinated in 1979. On the face of it, their aggressive claim is persuasive. The debate attracts plenty of pundits in what is by no means a media psychodrama or tale of a distant future. That future is coming into sharp focus for four reasons.

First, fuming right-wing groups have been calling for the South Korean Lee Myung-bak government to nullify the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, signed in 1992, by arguing that the hostile North had already broken the pact. In 2002, the Bush administration declared the 1994 Agreed Framework, including a series of steps for normalizing relations between the US and North Korea, null and void, in response to the North’s refusal to halt its enrichment program. So, the 1992 pact has been reduced to a plaque that gathers dust in a dark closet.

As strong advocates of the South’s nuclear buildup in the wake of the North’s provocative nuclear tests, they make light of the first clause of the pact that “South and North Korea shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.” The angry extremists continue to hold out hope for a nuclear-armed Korea.

Apparently the diehard North Korean regime’s threats and violations have provided ample excuses for South Korean hawks to do exactly the opposite of what the clause promised.

Second, North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 changed the logic of the denuclearization of the peninsula, ushering in a new era marked by an asymmetrical military posture. If North Korea is discovered to have actual nuclear warheads, South Korea would feel compelled to acquire a deterrent stockpile independently despite America’s committed nuclear umbrella policy. The North’s third nuclear test could possibly lead the South to reconsider the ossified denuclearization-related policy – a job requiring powerful leverage.

To this end, if sufficiently intimidated, average South Koreans could lose their reluctance over advancing nuclear capability. While Seoul does not now harbor ambitions to develop a nuclear-weapons capability, the chance of a profound change of mind is not impossible. For want of an alternative, it would be wise not to take South Korea’s non- nuclear policy for granted. The irony is that a growing number of South Koreans also live in a nuclear-weapons-solve-everything version of Plato’s cave – the same paranoid mindset the North has insisted upon.

Third, from a pure political engineering standpoint, the ideological debates that might move South Korea toward nuclear-weapons capability would likely arise during the heat of the elections season next year. By contending that the five other member states in the long-stalled Six-Party Talks, except North Korea, have been using the wrong approach, extreme conservative pundits are likely to demand Lee Myung-bak, whose term ends in February 2013, to give the next president political space and diplomatic support on the possibility of developing a nuclear-weapons program. In the context of an asymmetric nuclear-weapons structure, according to these hardliners, the appropriate response should include concerted efforts to make the form of deterrence perfectly protective of Seoul’s defense nets. Without having a ready formula for this cost-benefit analysis, many people in Seoul also vaguely assume that the desire for nuclear weapons can be an insurance policy in the world of international politics, a way of righting decades of historical wrongs. They point to the fact that South Korean leaders, for domestic political reasons, used to take bold positions contrary to Washington’s, lest they appear to be America’s lapdogs. But doing Washington’s bidding is not the point. What is crucial for a rational assessment of such choices is the will and practical capabilities of South Koreans to open the Pandora’s box called the nuclear- weapons program. If South Koreans approve, it has been suggested by one South Korean engineering professor that the nation is technically capable of producing a nuclear weapon in six months.

Fourth, South Korea’s denuclearization policy is fundamentally predicated on good relations with the US. Unfortunately, the ROK-US alliance is in tatters. Instead of cementing the mutual partnership, the US openly supported calling the disputed body of water between Korea and Japan the “Sea of Japan” rather than “East Sea.” The sharp differences over the revisions of the controversial ROK-US atomic agreement, which expires in 2014, show another widening crack. A growing number of South Koreans no longer have absolute confidence in American backing. These changes of perception are the result of a paradigm shift for the alliance that both countries have enjoyed over 50 years. This is not unexpected.

While Seoul cannot afford an open break with Washington, it has reason to put some distance between itself and its long patron. Some radicals even insist that the only way to understand events is to cause them, even though this would precipitate a severe crisis in Washington-Seoul relations and a disastrous situation on the peninsula. Unrefined utterances in favor of pursuing nuclear weapons are unnecessarily unsettling peace and stability on the peninsula. An insatiable appetite for weapons of mass destruction is likely to turn the peninsula-at-armistice into a powder keg.

These points are not meant to minimize the existent threats emanating from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but rather to plead in favor of the need for sophistication in eliminating the nuclear threats per se.

Assuming that America’s ability to direct regional events is strikingly in decline and the devaluation of US power is not good for coherence and development in the region, the US and South Korea must reach an agreement on the future direction for the alliance. The US must invest in more diplomacy with South Korea and relay the unspeakable truth – the time has come for South Koreans to stop chasing the ghosts of a former superpower.

Convincing South Korea that it can protect itself by nuclear weapons alone is like hoodwinking people into thinking that they can live by drinking only water. Unlike water, nuclear weapons have little to do with survival.  


Lee Byong-Chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, served on the foreign and national security policy planning staff of South Korean President Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) and President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) from 1993 to 1999.

Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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