Will South Korea Get Nuclear Weapons?
© 2019 South Korea Defense Ministry via AP
On July 29, Cho Kyoung-Tae, one of the leaders of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), went on record as saying that South Korea should give serious thought to developing a nuclear deterrent of its own.
In actual fact, he said that an ideal solution would be to obtain America’s consent to the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn in the early 1990s. If, however, the consent was not forthcoming, he said, South Korea should formally quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and start deploying its own nuclear missiles.
The Liberty Korea Party is no marginal political group. Right now, the South Korean right-wing forces are in disarray but the LKP has a membership of three million and over 100 seats in parliament, which makes it the biggest right-wing conservative party and the main parliamentary opposition party.
The question of South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons has been mooted for quite a while and, properly speaking, it was Seoul rather than Pyongyang that instigated a nuclear arms race on the Korean Peninsula.
In the early 1970s, the United States, influenced by the “Vietnam syndrome,” proclaimed the so-called Guam Doctrine that provided for a phased withdrawal of US forces from Asia. It was highly likely at that point that US troops would be withdrawn from South Korea as well. What is more, Washington was in fact considering this scenario.
The then South Korean leadership was far from pleased with this turn of events, given that their entire strategy was based on a US military presence in the country. This is why Gen. Park Chung Hee’s government, on the one hand, took all conceivable diplomatic steps to prevent a US withdrawal, while on the other, launched a clandestine project to develop own nuclear weapons.
The South Korean attempts of this kind soon ceased to be a secret and caused much concern in the United States. As a result, both governments reached a compromise in the late 1970s, with Washington promising to keep its military presence in South Korea and the latter pledging not to develop nuclear weapons. The compromise has held for 50 years, although over the last 10 or 15 years, many in South Korea have voiced discontent with the commitments Seoul assumed at that time.
According to opinion polls, nuclear weapons are quite popular in South Korea, with 50 to 70 percent of respondents consistently supporting (for years!) the idea that their country should have a nuclear deterrent of its own. True, the polls reflect vox populi, whereas the political elites, until recently, had no nuclear ambitions.
South Korea is an ideologically split society and the outlook of its left-wing nationalists (now in power) is a far cry from what their right-wing conservative opponents have in mind. Nevertheless, both flanks had a negative attitude to nuclear weapons.
The South Korean right-wingers have taken a consistently – and I am even tempted to say a “radically” – pro-American position. For this reason, they, firstly, did not doubt (again, until recently) the reliability of the US “nuclear umbrella,” and, secondly, they were not prepared to do anything that would inevitably raise the ire of Washington.
The left-wingers, on the contrary, are traditionally pacifist-minded and tend to believe that South Korea can cope with outside threats diplomatically, without recourse to military means or a deterrent. Moreover, they do not take the threat from the North so seriously as their right-wing opponents and for the most part are certain that the North Koreans will never use nuclear weapons against their kin.
Nevertheless, some developments over the last two or three years could – at least at first sight – impel the South Korean establishment to change its attitude to nuclear weapons.
One of these developments is the election of Donald Trump. After he assumed office in early 2017, Seoul, including its right-wing conservative elites, conceived doubts as to whether the United States was ready to perform its allied obligations under the new conditions. Contributing to these apprehensions are statements made by Trump himself, who is constantly displeased with both the system of US military-political alliances as a whole and the alliance with South Korea in particular.
Second, North Korea’s technological breakthrough of recent years is also an important factor contributing to a change of sentiment in Seoul (at least on the right flank of South Korean politics). During 2017, North Korea tested two ICBM models capable of reaching targets on the North American continent and carried out successful tests of a thermonuclear charge. Work is also advancing on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), with North Korea ready to commission its second missile-carrying submarine.
This means that the DPRK either already is or will soon become the world’s third country (after China and Russia) with the potential to wipe New York or Washington off the map. Under these circumstances, even the most pro-American members of the Seoul elite began asking themselves whether the United States would risk supporting South Korea if the cost of its interference in an inter-Korean conflict would be the death of millions of US civilians. In other words, South Korea is beginning to have doubts as to whether the US will be ready to sacrifice San Francisco to defend Seoul, while Donald Trump’s words and deeds only strengthen these misgivings.
When the reliability of the main – and, in fact, the only – strategic ally is in doubt, the idea of creating one’s own nuclear deterrent begins to appear much more attractive than previously.
Thus, it is clear why pro-nuclear sentiments have emerged among the South Korean right-wingers and why, taking into account the situation in which their country finds itself, this is quite logical. But does this mean that these plans can soon be translated into reality? Should we start being anxious about the “East Asian nuclear dominoes?”
According to the “East Asian nuclear dominoes” concept, North Korea’s nuclear development effort may trigger a geopolitical chain reaction, with nuclear weapons being acquired first by Japan and South Korea, then by Taiwan, and later possibly by some Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam. All of these countries have the economic and technological potential to create and deploy their own nuclear deterrents within an acceptable timeframe.
But most probably there is no cause for alarm and nuclear dominoes are unlikely to start falling in East Asia any time soon. Even if we assume that the South Korean conservatives (and the question of nuclear weapons is mooted only in the conservative camp, which is currently in opposition) will try to live up to their nuclear ambitions after coming to power in an election, they most likely are in for a failure.
The obstacle to Seoul achieving its nuclear ambitions does not lie in technological or financial problems. There are no such problems for South Korea and it would take it a couple of years at the most to develop its own nuclear weapons. But if Seoul started working on nuclear weapons (which is frankly improbable), it would immediately face serious economic and political consequences which, more likely than not, would force it to change position and abandon its nuclear ambitions.
By withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, South Korea would very probably lay itself open to international sanctions. For a number of reasons, on which we have no need to dwell, sanctions against South Korea would be less strict than those imposed on North Korea. Nevertheless, they would have a tangible impact on the country’s economic situation, given its strong dependence on international trade.
China’s position will be an even more serious problem. Right now China is the country with the most reason to fear that the “nuclear dominoes” scenario in East Asia will become a reality. With the exception of South Korea, all countries in the region with the potential to acquire nuclear weapons of their own will do so primarily in order to contain China. For this reason, China must prevent the dissolution of the nuclear non-proliferation system in East Asia, for which purpose Beijing will stop at nothing, including operations by secret services, clandestine support for anti-nuclear groups in South Korea, and sabotage at research centers (if this seems like an exaggeration, please recall Israel’s reaction to the Iranian nuclear program).
So, if and when South Korea’s putative nuclear project gets under way, the country will be subjected to the most severe Chinese sanctions. China may go as far as imposing a near total embargo on trade with South Korea.
These sanctions will be a crushing blow for the South Korean economy, given that China accounts for nearly 23% of South Korean trade. International and particularly Chinese sanctions will inevitably result in a substantial deterioration in the country’s economic status.
We saw something like this, albeit on a modest scale, in 2017, when Seoul allowed the United States to deploy its THAAD missile defense system on its territory and China in response introduced sanctions against South Korean companies. The sanctions were of a limited nature and included a restriction on the travel of Chinese tourists to South Korea and various “unofficial” obstacles for South Korean firms in China. Nevertheless, even this moderate action had a certain impact on the economy and proved a shock for the South Korean public. Eventually, the Moon Jae-in administration made concessions to Beijing.
Any large-scale sanctions would cause a full-blown economic crisis and a perceptible drop in living standards. The resultant disaffection would be much greater than what came in the wake of those semi-symbolic moves that were undertaken in response to the THAAD deployment.
Moreover, the overwhelming majority of South Koreans do not feel that their country is facing an existential threat or that its very existence is in question. With the exception of the right-wing conservative radicals, the people at large are surprisingly calm and relaxed with regard to the North Korean nuclear program. Seoul is certainly far from pleased with the fact that the neighboring hostile state has developed nuclear weapons, but the majority of South Koreans have no fear. Most of them are absolutely sure that North Korea will under no circumstances use nuclear weapons against its ethnic brothers. This certainty may be naïve but it is a political factor in its own right. This means that the ordinary South Korean voters, though theoretically supporting the idea of South Korea as a nuclear power, are not prepared to make considerable sacrifices for the sake of this goal.
On the other hand, economic success is the criterion by which the South Korean public assesses the efficiency of any government. The Moon Jae-in administration has to become convinced of this once again as it sees the steady decline of its popularity ratings in the wake of a gradual deterioration in the economy.
Therefore, the South Korean electoral reaction to a potential crisis provoked by international and Chinese sanctions would most likely be unequivocal. Outraged by a perceptible slide in living standards, voters would demand an immediate renunciation of the economically damaging and, from their point of view, hardly justified nuclear ambitions. If the ruling party refused to make concessions, its chances of winning the next election would drop to zero. In addition, the South Korean media, though extremely politicized, are not controlled by any single force, being equally divided between the left and right wings. Therefore, the right-wingers, even if they found themselves in a position of power, would hardly be able to carry out a proactive propaganda campaign in favor of the nuclear option.
More likely than not, however, things will not go as far as this, since most Korean politicians are aware – or at least feel intuitively – that all attempts to create South Korea’s own nuclear potential are doomed to failure. There is every likelihood that all the talk about nuclear weapons, although reflecting the hidden hopes of many right-wing politicians, is just an additional means for bringing pressure to bear on Washington and the world community, a “soft blackmail” method, if you will. In this way, South Korea wants to elicit a more serious international attitude to the North Korean nuclear issue and is reminding the world that Seoul too can pose problems to the nuclear non-proliferation regime on a par with Pyongyang.
Apart from that, the Korean rightists are hoping that this talk will impel Washington to strengthen the military alliance. For example, a group of US military experts, almost simultaneously with Cho Kyoung-Tae’s statement, made an informal proposal in a Joint Forces Quarterly article on US-South Korean joint control of a certain number of nuclear munitions. Agreements of this kind have long been in force with some NATO countries. In many respects, these ideas may be put forward in response to Seoul’s nuclear ambitions.
This does not mean, of course, that the fears in connection with the “nuclear dominoes” scare, a geopolitical chain reaction in East Asia, are totally groundless. But there is no need to panic over such a turn of events in the near future. If, after all, the chain reaction does begin, Seoul is unlikely to be its hub, no matter what conservative South Korean politicians have been saying recently.