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Don’t Be Shocked if South Korea Wants Nuclear Weapons

South Korea Ballistic Missiles
Image: Creative Commons.

In South Korea, the discussion of developing indigenous nuclear weapons is expanding. South Korean public opinion is moving on this issue, as is the national debate (here, here, here, here). What was once a fringe area of discussion is now increasingly debated. At the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul last week, there was more open discussion of South Korean nuclearization than I have seen in the fourteen years I have taught national security in South Korea. Should North Korea perform another nuclear weapons test this year – as is widely expected – the debate will shift again. The Overton window on the possession of indigenous nuclear weapons in South Korea is moving to the right, and U.S. officials, traditionally hostile to South Korean nuclearization, will need to consider this growing discourse before simply insisting that Seoul not build them regardless of public interest.

Traditional US Opposition

The United States is South Korea’s only treaty ally. While the South has many democratic partners in a general sense, it has poor relations with the other major democracy in its neighborhood – Japan. And the European Union is far away. So the South’s relationship with the US is unique. Indeed, South Korea’s exposure to autocracies like China and North Korea mean that the US alliance is crucial for its security. This is turn gives the US substantial leverage over South Korean foreign policy.

The US used the leverage in the 1970s to derail an earlier South Korean effort to develop nuclear weapons. At the time, the South was governed by a dictator, Park Chung-Hee. Park feared South Korean conventional inferiority to North Korea and that the US might withdraw further from East Asia after it gave up on the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. And indeed, President Jimmy Carter tried to remove US forces from South Korea in the late 1970s. Carter sought to place human rights at the center of US foreign policy, and Park had built a repressive police apparatus.

Carter’s effort was stymied by Congressional and bureaucratic resistance. But not before the administration of previous President Gerald Ford had forced Park to give up his clandestine nuclear ambitions. In doing so, the US also pushed South Korea into the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT requires non-nuclear signatories to refrain from developing nuclear weapons. North Korea was a member of the NPT too, from 1985 to 2003. So long as it did not have nuclear weapons, South Korea’s willingness to challenge the US to allow it to develop its own nukes was muted.

Why Nukes Now?

That disinterest though seems to be changing. This year – as demonstrated in the polling and scholarly debate – has seen a significant upswing in both the issue’s visibility and the public’s willingness to challenge South Korea’s participation in the NPT. 64% of the South Koreans in polling linked above supported indigenous nuclearization even if it meant – as it certainly would – exiting the NPT.

The core arguments for South Korean nuclearization are well-known by now. Elsewhere, I have argued that there are two core drivers, which American bureaucratic resistance will increasingly find hard to ignore:

First, since 2017, North Korea has had the ability to strike the US mainland with a nuclear missile. This means that if the US should intervene in a Korean contingency, North Korea could strike the US with a nuclear weapon. This in turn might discourage the US from supporting its South Korean ally directly, per treaty requirement. This commitment credibility problem is a well-known issue in alliances. During the Cold War, France and Britain were so skeptical that the US would fight a nuclear war on their behalf (against the Soviet Union), that they built their own nukes. South Korea (and Japan) are increasingly in a similar position regarding Chinese and, especially, North Korean nuclear weapons.

Second, Donald Trump may return to the US presidency in 2025. He was noticeably cool toward US allies, especially South Korea, during his presidency. Indeed, Trump threatened to remove US forces from South Korea altogether if re-elected. This would almost certainly push South Korea to nuclearize immediately.

These two threats drivers for nuclearization have been around for years though, so it is still unclear why nuclearization suddenly became a hot topic this year in South Korea. The most likely answer is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has very successfully used oblique threats of nuclear escalation to limit NATO involvement in the war. South Korean fears are that North Korean nuclear weapons might do the same here.

Options

The most obvious answer to this tangle is that South Korea develop a small, indigenous nuclear arsenal to directly deter North Korea on its own. That would be a dramatic step though. There would be US and Chinese resistance. Other options include US ‘nuclear sharing,’ the re-introduction of US tactical nuclear weapons, or perhaps, South Korea’s development of only tactical weapons.

For now, the US is adamantly opposed and South Korean officials do not publicly say they want this option. The discussion is limited to ‘track 2’ voices – academics, think-tankers, and former military officials. But that is where new ideas usually come from before they penetrate the formal bureaucracy.

If North Korea tests yet again this – it would be the North’s seventh nuclear test – South Korean public opinion will likely shift to the right yet again, and the nuclearization debate will go fully mainstream. And since North Korea has no intention of stopping its program, it is only a matter of time before this happens. US officials need to start considering how to answer this rising debate.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRobertEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Error404

    July 24, 2022 at 9:35 am

    Obviously, Israel is the model for seoul to follow.

    The jewish state has never declared possession (of its nuke weaponry), but its covert nuke arsenal rivals that of european powers in technical sophistication.

    South korea is the israel of north-east asia, as equally powerful and ruthless as the one in the mid-east, so it begs the elephant-in-the-room question – why the hell is the US military still squatting tightly in south korea, and right at the dmz, too ??? ???

    To kickstart ww3 in asia, like in ukraine now ???

    Be warned, any nuke attack on north korea will affect the south. Both koreas will in the end become unihabitable radioactive dustbowls. Thanks, uncle sam, for your vision of korean welfare.

    • Joe Comment

      July 24, 2022 at 11:27 am

      Error404: Israel was never a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but South Korea is. A South Korean nuclear arsenal would be a major dent in the treaty.

      Your “South Korea = powerful and ruthless Israel” line seems to lack substance. Israel is much more powerful than its neighbors. Is South Korea much more powerful than China, Russia, Japan? In what way is it “ruthless”?

      Why is the US there, you ask? You’ve forgotten what happened in 1950 when the North tried to conquer the South and nearly succeeded?

      Your last line seems to imply that “nuke attack on North Korea” is a US vision. Based on what? The US is against South Korean and North Korean nukes.

      • Arash P

        July 24, 2022 at 2:07 pm

        Ay ay ay, the annoying NPT excuse again. The hell with NPT. What is NPT anyway but a nuclear apartheid regime?

        I’m from Iran and I can promise you that Iran will leave NPT soon to silence Israeli apologists like you bringing up NPT constantly.

        • Joe Comment

          July 24, 2022 at 7:30 pm

          Arash P: Are you not proud of your country’s word when it comes to observing treaties? If not, why bother with treaties at all? Do you not believe other countries should respect Iran’s rights under the various international treaties?

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    July 24, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    No ROK nukes yet – but I wouldn’t blame them for developing a breakout capacity so that they could build nukes quickly.

  3. David W Burgess

    July 25, 2022 at 9:44 am

    North Korea has been working on a nuclear weapon since Kim Jung Fatass’s father was dictator. This is not news unless you’ve been asleep since Clinton was in office.

    • David W Burgess

      July 25, 2022 at 9:45 am

      My bad, I misread headline.

  4. David Chang

    July 25, 2022 at 10:25 am

    You are wrong about the politics of Korea.

    North Korea is a socialism government,
    and some people in South Korea believe Confucianism,
    others in South Korea believe socialism.

    You are wrong about another thing.

    Japan Prime Minister Abe and anti-socialism party in South Korea are trying to be friendly. But Moon Jae-in, who believes in socialism, has incited socialism party in South Korea to oppose Japan.

    • John Kagawa

      July 25, 2022 at 11:59 pm

      In what world do you live in to think that South Koreans believe socialism?

      You must be one of those people who think Moon Jae-in and his aupporters are “socialist” and “anti-Japan” when that is totally false.

      Standing up for the rights of Korean slave workers of WW2 against Japan is not “anti-Japanese”. Trying to have friendly relations with North Korea is not “socialism”.

      (Let’s not forget that Abe literally visited shrines that honor WW2 war criminals. South Korea – Japan relations are at their worst since WW2 after Abe’s tenure.)

  5. David Chang

    July 29, 2022 at 11:07 am

    You are wrong.

    Both Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un consider themselves to be representatives of socialism in Korea, so Moon Jae-in implements socialism policy in South Korea.
    The current president of South Korea opposes socialism, but accept market economy.

    In addition, during World War II, the Japan army believe socialism and evolution, occupied Korea, and trafficked women, forcing them to prostitute in the army.

    But Japan Prime Minister Abe admit that it was the wrong of Japan people and apologized to Korea people.

    However, the socialism party in South Korea still want to break the friendly relations between South Korea and Japan by publish the sin of Japan Socialism Army in World War II.

  6. Logano

    August 8, 2022 at 11:18 pm

    @David Chang
    “Prime Minister Abe admit that it was the wrong of Japan people and apologized to Korea people.”

    You, sir, are a straight up liar and/or deluded. Provide the source, please.

  7. Trad

    August 14, 2022 at 10:13 pm

    I think South Korea should develop their own nuclear capacity. If China does not like it they need to have North Korea give’s their up. Truth be told that will be difficult because North Korea’s greatest threat is China itself. They secretly want the US to be in South Korea and they want the dynamic to stay the same, as that complicates any take over by China.

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