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South Korea: The Next Nation to Build Nuclear Weapons?

Nuclear Weapons. Image Creative Commons.
Image: Creative Commons.

The Korean nuclear crisis began around three decades ago. After years of negotiation, broken agreements, sanctions, threats of military preemption, and even presidential summitry, North Korea continues to forge ahead with its nuclear program.

The Rand Corporation and Asan Institute recently warned that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could have an arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons by 2027, which would make it a mid-level nuclear state. Possessing the power to wreak death and destruction throughout East Asia and even reach America, the DPRK would make the alliance untenable, unless a future president was willing to risk U.S. cities to protect South Korea. That would be difficult if not impossible politically and the promise would not likely be believed by Seoul.

To this add evidence that Pyongyang has restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, presumably to produce plutonium. The best case is that the North’s Supreme Leader is seeking to increase his leverage for upcoming negotiations with the U.S. However, the regime mostly spurned engagement with Washington after the failed Hanoi summit and so far has ignored the Biden administration’s overtures.

Moreover, of late North Korea has turned sharply inward. It reversed modest economic reforms, increasing state control. Even more dramatic, Pyongyang responded to the threat of COVID-19 with self-isolation. Sealing the borders also interrupted the steady flow of refugees and reinforced the crackdown on access to South Korean culture. Perhaps under pressure from the military and other hardliners at home Kim Jong-un has abandoned his efforts at outreach and decided to return to the more isolationist policies of his father and grandfather.

In any case, the DPRK’s behavior reinforces arguments from the South Korean right. Observed writer Morten Soendergaard Larsen, the Yongbyon restart “fueled existing convictions among some conservative South Korean politicians that Pyongyang will never agree to give up its nukes so Seoul needs a nuclear deterrent of its own.”

Unlike Japan, where the idea of developing nuclear weapons remains highly controversial since that country remains the only one upon which nukes have been used, South Koreans have been thinking about the idea for a half century. Military dictator Park Chung-hee, worried about the constancy of American support, began a nuclear program in the 1960s. The U.S. applied significant pressure to convince Park to drop the effort.

Over the years the idea has regularly flared. South Korean nukes featured in a novel and were promoted by a presidential candidate. Noted Larsen: “The urge to unfurl their own nuclear umbrella has grown in recent years due to both Pyongyang’s fissile and missile advances and after four years of former U.S. President Donald Trump disparaging the Korean alliance and urging the country to develop its own nuclear shield.”

Doing so would have obviously downsides. Moving down a nuclear path would create a massive diplomatic freak-out in both Europe and Asia. Few countries likely would sanction the Republic of Korea, but they might become more reluctant to purchase ROK nuclear reactors, a major export. Possessing nuclear weapons would deter Pyongyang from staging a full-scale attack, but wouldn’t necessarily preclude more limited provocations, such as the sinking of the Cheonan and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.

However, if negotiations don’t at least cap North Korean nuclear developments, the status quo will soon become untenable. Since 1953 the U.S. has maintained troops on the Korean peninsula, ready for a renewed conventional slugfest. Although another Korean War likely would be horrific, the risks would be limited in geography, to Korea, and in means, to conventional weapons. Until now Washington’s threat to intervene on the South’s behalf, especially with a military tripwire on the peninsula, was credible.

In contrast, the DPRK with 200 nuclear weapons, and the ability to attack virtually any target anywhere, would be very different. Imagine a conflict that began with conventional forces and featured a winning allied offensive, like that of 1950, with allied troops overrunning the North and headed toward the Yalu River. Then the Kim Il-sung government survived after massive intervention by the People’s Republic of China. Today Beijing is very unlikely to take on America at the North’s behest.

With no other saving deus ex machina in prospect, grandson Kim Jong-un instead could give the U.S. an ultimatum: withdraw to prewar positions or he would unleash nuclear hell upon the region, including Seoul, Tokyo, Okinawa (hosting a Marine Expeditionary Force), and Guam (an American territory filled with U.S. bases). And upon the American homeland too, from Honolulu to Washington, D.C. Such an action of course would trigger massive retaliation, but that might not deter him since Kim’s exit would otherwise be guaranteed, even if not in a radioactive funeral pyre. The U.S. president would have to yield to save America.

Nuclear war via inadvertence or error also would be a danger. Who in the North would be involved in the decision for war and how secure are nuclear controls? Washington’s tendency to posture and threaten as a political remedy whenever the DPRK seems more unruly than normal, especially if accompanied by Trumpesque rhetoric about “fire and fury,” could cause Pyongyang to put the weapons on hair-trigger alert and perceive war in every U.S. action, risking an unintended conflict.

The obvious solution would be for the U.S. to drop the alliance, leaving the much stronger ROK to defend itself. Which likely would require its own nuclear arsenal. That might not be a good solution. But it still might be the best solution.

Especially since nukes would also have a chastening effect on China. Although so far Beijing has shown no interest in territorial aggression beyond retrieving areas “lost” during the empire’s later period of extraordinary weakness, an ROK nuclear deterrent would discourage the Chinese leadership from even entertaining the thought of using its military superiority to intimidate and threaten South Korea.

The world has changed dramatically over the last 70 years. There is no reason to assume that a force structure and alliance network created in that era remains equally appropriate today. The U.S. should consider what changes are required to meet today’s reality. And that includes whether the best response to an expanded North Korean nuclear arsenal is a South Korean equivalent.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea. 

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.