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Blame North Korea and China if South Korea Builds Nuclear Weapons

North Korea Hwasong-8
Image: KCNA/North Korean State Media.

The last year has seen a rising debate about whether South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons. The argument for this step is two-fold: First, North Korea acquired the ability to strike the US homeland in 2017 with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This automatically reduces the credibility of the US security guarantee to South Korea. America’s leadership will inevitably be warier about fighting North Korea now that it can range the continental US with nuclear weapons.

Second, the US and South Korea are starting to drift apart on security perceptions. South Korea wants the US alliance mainly focused on North Korea while it continues to trade warily with China.

The US, however, is increasingly moving toward what the Biden administration has called ‘great power competition’ with China. South Korea is ambivalent about lining up openly against China, if only because it must live next to China and, thus, prefers a less antagonistic relationship.

An small independent nuclear deterrent for South Korea is a helpful way to partially seal this alliance rift. But there is anxiety about how the region – North Korea, China, Japan – will respond.

Will Japan and Others in East Asia Nuclearize in Response to South Korea?

A long-standing argument in the nonproliferation literature is that one country’s nuclearization ignites other countries’ nuclearization in a ‘cascade.’ This is possible and seems to have occurred in a few cases. The USSR probably nuclearized in response to the US; China in response to the USSR; India in response to China; Pakistan in response to India. And South Korea may nuclearize in response to North Korea.

But nuclear weapons have not otherwise spread across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, or Europe as a cascade model implies. This is because nothing is automatic about a step as momentous as developing nuclear weapons. South Korea, for example, has signaled since 1992, that it wants a denuclearized peninsula. It is only drifting toward nukes, because North Korea has adamantly refused to stop testing and building. Pakistan held off going nuclear until it felt it had no choice due to India nuclearization. The choice to build nuclear weapons usually reflects a deeply-felt security need.

In the Japanese case, South Korean nuclear weapons would not meaningfully change its security position. Indeed, South Korea and Japan do not cooperate well. But both are democracies, well-governed, and US allies. Their relations may be a cold peace, but a hot war between them is extremely unlikely. South Korea will not nuke Japan, nor vice versa. If Japan goes nuclear, it will be because of threats from North Korea and China. Similarly, South Korean nuclear weapons do not threaten Taiwan or Southeast Asia, so there is no reason to expect movement there either.

There is no reason to believe that a limited South Korean nuclear arsenal – very obviously designed around deterring North Korea after thirty years of exhaustion with Pyongyang’s nuclear shenanigans – would include sparking a cascade among Asian democracies.

North Korea is Backing South Korea into a Corner on Nuclear Weapons

More important is how North Korea and China will respond.

They will, of course, criticize it and call it destabilizing, aggressive, part of a wider American hegemonic conspiracy, and so on.

But this is crocodile tears and bad faith. If North Korea and China wanted a denuclearized region, there is much they could have done in recent decades to prevent this looming outcome.

The North Korean and Chinese position – that South Korea should remain non-nuclear – is akin to unilateral disarmament. This is a grossly unrealistic expectation, which Chinese elites particularly – because they are better connected to the rest of the world than the paranoid, secluded Kim regime of North Korea – should know. As North Korean nukes drive a wedge between the US and South Korea, it is only natural that South Korea would consider more radical options to defend. South Korea’s president, for example, suggested preemptive strikes on North Korean missile sites in a crisis. If North Korea and China reject this sort of talk, then North Korea could stop testing and give the region a breather to work toward a solution. Instead, it has done the opposite this year.

China had a choice. As North Korea’s patron since that country’s terrible famine in the late 1990s, China had the leverage to push North Korea to negotiate on nuclear weapons. It could have cracked down on North Korean money in Chinese banks, desperately needed energy imports, or sanctions violations. Beijing chooses not to do that. South Korea signaled its non-nuclear preferences again and again for thirty years. Yet still, China chose not to push North Korea very hard. And North Korea chose to gimmick negotiations for decades to buy time to develop its nukes.

In short, North Korea almost certainly played in bad faith – never intending to denuclearize, just flim-flamming negotiations to buy time to keep pushing forward. And China was never willing to really push North Korea, to really take sides against it to compel it to negotiate seriously.

So now, with South Korean cities extremely vulnerable to North Korean nuclear attacks, is it any wonder the South Koreans are thinking of counter-nuking?

So yes, the immediate decision to nuke up will be Seoul’s, and it will be criticized if it makes this choice. But the real reason, as in so many South Korean defense decisions, is North Korea and its relentless march toward nuclear weapons and missiles. Blame Kim Jong Un and his Chinese enablers.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.


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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. 

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Arash

    November 25, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    Why not add the same logic elsewhere?

    Why not blame
    1-Israel’s covert nuke arsenal,
    2-America’s lack of pressure on Israel to join NPT and
    3-America’s constant threats of “all options are on the table” to Iran
    if Iran makes nukes?!

    Why not blame America’s destruction of those countries that gave up nuclear program for North Korea and Iran’s lack of interest in denuclearization?!

    American arrogance and unilateralism, lack of accountability and constant playing favorite is THE main cause of nuclear proliferation in the world.

  2. Ezra Teter

    November 25, 2022 at 3:33 pm

    What a pathetic shill!! I bet the author doesn’t even speak any Korean despite living in Pusan. He neglects to mention that hostilities of the war there in the early 50s only ended on an armistice and not a peace accord. We killed about a third of their civilian population in that war and we regularly carry out “war games” where we pretend to invade North Korea. The U.S. only has itself to blame for the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

  3. June

    November 25, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    I highly doubt South Korea will develop nuclear weapons. If South Korea wanted, it could have developed it decades ago but it did not. On the contrary, the (former) president Moon tried to decommission all nuclear power plants in South Korea. As shown in Ukraine, nuclear weapons may look good but not very useful. I believe South Korea will focus on conventional weapons such as fighter jets, artillery, tanks, submarines, missiles, and anti ballistic missile systems and it has been successful in these areas. Considering the rise of China, South Korea is a strategically important ally of the US. As shown in the recent Australia-China trade war, China has bullied neighbors for millennials. Thus, South Korea is wise enough not to publicly support US policy on China. However, when the time comes, South Korea will be a significant force against China. South Korea already considers China as the major threat to her security and a small number of nuclear weapons are hardly useful against China.

  4. 403Forbidden

    November 25, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    Blame it on the bidenista dried old shrimp douglas macArthur.

    He and his stoltenbergista sidekick john hodge started the mess when they put defeated jap officials in the administration of the US-controlled region of the korean peninsula.

    The americans were a thoroughly sneaky bunch. They hadn’t the foggiest idea of how much suffering the koreans had already endured and actually wanted more but the soviets put their foot down and finally had to settle dor the 38th parallel.

    The soviet zone fared much better and by 1949 they were gone unlike the americans who were busy bashing and shooting protesters and rioters.

    Where america (chief of devils) goes trouble follows. It was true then, still true now.

    Thanks, america !

  5. The Rational Thinker

    November 26, 2022 at 9:58 am

    “Blame China!”

    Yeah… that seems to be the mantra these days. From TikTok challenges to why our hairlines are receding… BLAME CHINA!!!!

  6. Ben d'Mydogtags

    November 26, 2022 at 12:42 pm

    Under existing arrangements the USA has complete OPCON of all ROK forces in the event of a war. A US four-star commands the US/ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC.) Ever since the Jimmy Carter administration both countries have discussed transitioning to full ROK OPCON of their own forces. But it never happens. Sometimes the US is hesitant. Sometimes the Koreans are hesitant. The unstated reason is that a US 4-star theater commander would have a direct line to US National Command Authorities if he needed to request use of nukes. A Korean commander and Korean President supported by some forward-deployed US forces would likely not have such a quick or easy path to make nukes available.

    If the OPCON transition ever actually happens that will likely be the trigger for South Korea to obtain their own nukes.

  7. iGreg

    November 26, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    I do not see why South Korea is even delaying this. Of course they should build nukes. Taiwan and Japan should also.

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