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.
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_Kelly; RoberEdwinKelly.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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