Why South Korea Shouldn’t Go Nuclear
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Why South Korea Shouldn’t Go Nuclear


APLN Vice Chair Moon Chung-in points out that if Seoul acquires nuclear arms, it would have a fatal impact on its survival, prosperity and prestige. The original article is on the Asia Times website.

The North Korean nuclear predicament has haunted South Koreans for more than 30 years — yet the problem has gotten worse.

While Seoul has always been uncertain about Washington’s commitment to extended nuclear deterrence, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol recently released an unprecedented and dangerously misguided level of support for nuclear weapons.

In January 2021, Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea had successfully developed tactical nuclear weapons. On September 8, 2022, North Korea formally legalized its nuclear armaments and altered its nuclear doctrine to include both defensive deterrence based on “no-first-use” and pre-emptive strikes if its security is seriously threatened.

Pyongyang’s nuclear threats are no longer theoretical — they pose an existential threat to Seoul. Three schools of thought have emerged to cope with them: extended deterrence, bargaining and acquiring independent nuclear arms.

Extended deterrence — which is the South Korean government’s official position — emphasizes strengthening conventional and extended deterrence with the United States. This includes improving ROK–US combined war-fighting capabilities, increasing the frequency and intensity of joint military exercises and joint planning, information-sharing, and even joint execution of nuclear weapons.

According to this view, redeployment of tactical weapons, nuclear sharing and independent nuclear arms are not necessary as long as the US commitment to extended deterrence is credible.

Some conservative politicians and opinion leaders have raised doubts about the US commitment. This nuclear-sharing school reasons that, because the United States will not sacrifice Los Angeles for Seoul, South Korea must redeploy US tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn in 1991 or pursue a NATO-style nuclear-sharing arrangement with the United States.

Despite the pleas of some South Korean conservatives, the US government has strongly opposed the idea of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons because of their unavailability and the strategic vulnerability associated with their redeployment.

Prospects for a nuclear-sharing arrangement — similar to that pursued by the United States and NATO members during the Cold War — faltered due to insufficient attention from the United States and the South Korean public.

The chances of the US Senate ratifying such a nuclear-sharing program with South Korea are effectively nil. The proponents of these views know that neither redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons nor nuclear-sharing are plausible, but they advance such arguments to secure a credible US commitment to extended deterrence for South Korea.

Their logic is that if the United States guarantees a credible nuclear deterrent, there is no need to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons or seek NATO-style nuclear sharing.

But the third school argues that if the United States fails to ensure extended deterrence or agree on redeployment or nuclear-sharing, there is no choice but to pursue an independent nuclear path. This school advocates an independent nuclear path in the name of nuclear sovereignty and the logic of nuclear-for-nuclear.

For its proponents, nuclear weapons are the symbol of national independence and an end in itself. They argue that a nuclear balance of terror is the only way to deal with North Korea and avoid becoming enslaved by its nuclear weapons.

This option has been gaining public support after President Yoon recently broke a long taboo on discussing the independent acquisition of nuclear weapons.

He said that “If the problem becomes more serious, South Korea could have tactical nuclear weapons deployed or secure its own nuclear weapons.” He added that “if things turn out this way, we will be able to acquire [nuclear weapons] quickly thanks to our science and technological capabilities.”

South Korean public opinion on going nuclear has varied depending on North Korea’s behavior but after Yoon’s remarks, support for the idea rapidly increased.

National security aims to ensure the survival of the state, the prosperity of the country and the prestige of the nation. But the path toward acquiring nuclear weapons could have paradoxical results, not only jeopardizing South Korea’s survival and endangering its prosperity but also severely damaging its prestige in the international community.

The case for acquiring nuclear weapons is based on the argument that US extended deterrence is unreliable and that South Korea should counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons of its own.

But South Korean nuclear armament would set off a nuclear arms race on the Korean Peninsula, provoke a nuclear build-up in China and Russia and potentially rupture South Korea’s alliance with the United States.

The move towards nuclear armament would also cause the international community to impose sanctions on South Korea’s export-oriented economy which it could not withstand, deal a crushing blow to its nuclear power industry and seriously weaken its international image.

Many nuclear armament advocates talk as if South Korea is doomed to helpless subservience unless it chooses to go nuclear, but that choice would have a fatal impact on its survival, prosperity and prestige. Doesn’t Washington place more strategic value on East Asia than ever before? Hasn’t it repeatedly affirmed that it would provide South Korea with extended deterrence?

The ROK–US combined force structure remains healthy and there is still a path to a diplomatic solution through dialogue and negotiation. Given these circumstances, it is puzzling why so many insist on the self-defeating approach of nuclear armament.

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