A concerning trend is unfolding in the Korean Peninsula and larger East Asia wherein fresh talks in South Korea of revisiting the nuclear options are being openly articulated. This is precisely being triggered by North Korea’s relentless surge in nuclear weapons development programmes and missile firings around South Korea and Japan’s air space. As no punitive sanctions on North Korea seemed to have worked dissuading it to abjure its mindless pursuit of nuclear weapons development programmes, the two immediate neighbours of North Korea – Japan and South Korea – are compelled to rethink their own strategies to cope with the North Korean challenge. While Japan is seeking reassurance from the United States and beefing up its own defence capability as was demonstrated by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent visit to Washington and talks with the US President Joe Biden for support, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has openly articulated his country’s need to acquire nuclear arms to defend South Korea against North Korean threats.
By Prof Rajaram Panda
The debate of both Japan and South Korea revisiting their nuclear option is not recent. The debate has been going on among certain academic circles with occasional political support in both countries for nearly a decade. This clamour has received renewed vigour in recent times as the security environment in the Northeast Asian region has become critical. Both these developed countries are facing twin threats from North Korea and China. Both have the required technology and capital to develop nuclear bomb. What is lacking now is the necessary political will to make this possible. It is possible to visualise a scenario that public opinion could swing quickly if the threat perception is heightened considerably. This possibility could dramatically alter the security matrix in the entire Indo-Pacific region.
Yoon Suk-yeol’s remarks about defending South Korea against North Korean threats are controversial and are pregnant with serious consequences. This was the first time a South Korean leader broached the possibility since the US withdrew its nuclear weapons from the peninsula more than 30 years ago. Understandably, Yoon’s remarks kicked off debate about his administration’s nuclear posture and raised concerns that Seoul’s willingness to entertain an indigenous nuclear programme risks compromising its alliance with Washington and the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.
What President Yoon said was that South Korea could arm itself with tactical nuclear weapons if tensions with Pyongyang continue to grow. This remark was against the provocation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s remarks in January that his country would develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile as the US and South Korea were seeking to isolate and stifle Pyongyang. Yoon was confident that with the advanced science and technology that it possesses, South Korea would be in a position to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. What President remarked in clear terms that “if the (North Korean nuclear) problem becomes more serious, the Republic of Korea may deploy tactical nuclear weapons or come to possess its own nuclear weapons”. “If that happens, it won’t take long, and with our science and technology, we could have (nuclear weapons) sooner as time passes,” Yoon added.
It may be recalled that throughout much of the Cold War, the US had stationed nuclear-armed weapons in South Korea. Then in 1991, President George H.W. Bush withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed broad, and Moscow reciprocated following disarmament talks with Pyongyang and Moscow. Relations have nosedived since then, particularly after North Korea stepped up a series of missile tests and enshrined the right to use nuclear weapons into national law in September 2022. South Korea is rattled by such escalatory moves by Pyongyang. It is therefore weighing three possible options: strengthening its alliance relationship with the US, deepen cooperation with Japan and develop its own nuclear weapon. None of the three possible options are easy to realise. While Seoul is under constant pressure from the US to share greater security burden, relations with Japan continue to suffer from the shadow of history. The third option lacks political will as well as public disapproval at the moment. So, Seoul’s dilemma continues.
The more acceptable option for South Korea could be to hold new military drills, including table top and computer simulations, as well as exercises involving the “delivery means for nuclear weapons”. This is what Yoon might be weighing as an alternative. This too is also not easy as US President Joe Biden has denied that Washington was considering joint nuclear drills with South Korea. Biden cannot overlook Pyongyang’s justification that its launches are a response to US-South Korean exercises, which Pyongyang views as a national security threat and a rehearsal for invasion.
While the US has ruled out South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, Yoon needs to be reassured that the US has reaffirmed extended deterrence to counter North Korean “aggression”. The Pentagon has assured Seoul that it can continue to count on Washington’s nuclear umbrella and US troops in the region. Yoon needs to keep in mind that the US policy remains focussed on the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
What could be the possible consequences should Yoon ignores the counsel from Washington and succeeds in giving a political push to his desire to acquire tactical nuclear weapons to counter North Korea? The costs could be heavy for Seoul. As an immediate response, international sanctions shall follow, crippling South Korean economy. The US might intervene to strengthen its extended deterrence and adopts to the evolving threats and to arrest escalation but would find difficult to go against world public opinion. Will that be a choice for Yoon to shape his nation’s political future? The worry is the debate in South Korea on nuclear options is louder than ever, after Yoon raised the possibility of Seoul acquiring its own nuclear weapons. There is a growing perception in South Korea that Washington has not taken seriously to the threats that South Korea faces from North Korea. Seoul also perceived that this neglect has always been a trigger for hostility by Pyongyang and dialogue remaining as a casualty. North Korea relies on its nuclear weapons to overcome its vast conventional weaknesses compared to the US. For Pyongyang, possession of nuclear weapons is the only means of its survival. That is unlikely to change, no matter what level of diplomacy is applied. The former President Moon Jae-In did try to seek solution but his efforts for summit diplomacy ended in fiasco.
Yoon’s remarks stood in sharp contrast to what his predecessor Mon jae-in had observed on 14 September 2017. Moon had categorically rubbished the idea that South Korea needs to develop its own nuclear weapons. The remarks reflected the prevailing mood of the government at that time. In fact, no South Korean President ever bothered to mention the idea of Seoul going nuclear. Such plans were clearly outside the realm of serious discussion.
Things changed even during the later days of Moon’s Presidency. Talks concerning the need for a South Korean nuclear programme were fairly commonplace in Seoul then. South Korean people started perceiving that sanctions on North Korea have failed and therefore public opinion swung in favour of their nation acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Public opinion polls consistently indicated that a majority of the country’s population would actually support the idea of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons.
When North Korea ratcheted up international tensions and fears with its sixth and largest nuclear test in September 2017, though South Korea did not believe that the North will start a war, a Gallup Korea survey indicated that “nuclear option” was now on the table with 60 per cent of the South Koreans supporting in favour. 37 per cent felt North Korea would start a war. In comparison, the figure within Japan was close to 5 per cent. In the first poll in 1992, 69 per cent of those questioned thought the North would start a war while only 24 per cent thought it would not. Interestingly, this poll of September 2017 showed that South Koreans were considerably less concerned about war compared with June 2007; nine months after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in September 2006.
Does this mean that South Koreans are really scared of a potential attack on their country by the Northern neighbour? On the contrary, the people in South Korea seem to have resigned to their fate and are generally calm with no signs of panic. They seem to have got used to the repeated threats of provocation since the armistice in 1953 but no peace treaty, leaving the two siblings technically at war. Interestingly, those in their twenties are most opposed to the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons but those above 50 and older look for safety under nuclear cover. Majority of those who participated in the survey however held the view that the US should not attack North Korea first despite continuous provocations from Pyongyang.
Moon Jae-In was a liberal and more dovish. Yoon Suk-yeol is hawkish and leading the right-leaning party. Yoon is aware that South Korea has enough money and technical expertise to go nuclear. But it is doubtful if he can overcome the types of political obstacles blocking that goal. Moreover South Korea is a democracy and dependent on foreign trade to maintain the momentum of economic growth. This singular impediment could make the nuclear option difficult to realise.
If Yoon somehow manages to go ahead with his nuclear ambition, it would definitely make South Korea a target of international sanctions. China could see a nuclear South Korea a greater threat than a nuclear North Korea. South Korea’s dependence on China for trade is immense; China controls over a quarter of South Korea’s entire foreign trade. If Yoon goes nuclear, Chinese sanctions, perhaps a complete boycott, are certain to provoke a grave economic crisis in South Korea. Such a turn of events would ensure that any government seriously attempting to provoke a grave economic crisis in South Korea would be voted out of power at the next possible opportunity.
While the concern of the holder generation of South Koreans could be real, the younger generations still see North Korea as little more than a bad joke. Their theoretical interest in the nuclear option is likely to evaporate once they encounter economic troubles. All these arguments lead to one possible outcome: Yoon’s aspirations are unrealizable. There could be more talks on the possibility of South Korea going nuclear and most of these are likely to remain confined at academic level. Mere talks do not necessarily translate elevating South Korea to the ranks of world’s nuclear powers, officially recognised or otherwise. So, the debate shall continue.
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