South Korea set for nuclear showdown with communist world as US promise to protect its allies in the firing line rings hollow
South Korean nuclear proliferation in the face of increasing aggression from the north is inevitable. It is only a matter of when, writes Professor Joseph M. Siracusa.
Professor Joseph M. SiracusaSkyNews.com.au Contributor and Political Commentator
January 16, 2023 – 10:54AM
United States and South Korean officials appear at odds with each other over potential nuclear exercises. Seoul has said the military drills are being discussed despite US President Joe Biden’s denial.
There are more nuclear weapons states on the way.
South Korean nuclear proliferation, for example, is inevitable. It is only a matter of when.
Its President Yoon Suk Yeol said publicly this week that if North Korea’s nuclear threat grows, Seoul would consider building its own stockpile of the deadly weapons.
The speech seemed to hold little hope that the threat from the north could still be dealt with by strengthening the alliance with the United States.
Perhaps Washington’s biggest challenge of the present day is convincing its allies it can protect them.
South Korea simply doesn’t believe the US will honour its nuclear guarantee in a showdown with the north.
This is nothing new, after all.
In 1961 – a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis – French President Charles De Gaulle famously asked US President John Kennedy if he would exchange New York for Paris.
According to the historical record, “Kennedy waffled. I think the answer is probably ‘no’.
“I don’t believe the US would fight a nuke war solely for non-Americans.”
South Korea is openly considering building its own nuclear arsenal as it no longer believes the US will honour its nuclear guarantee in a showdown with North Korea, writes Professor Joseph M. Siracusa. Pictured are North Korean soldiers marching during a military parade in 2018. Picture: AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS /JIJI PRESS)
President Yoon’s comments mark the first time since George H. W. Bush withdrew America’s nuclear weapons from the South in 1991 that a South Korean president has officially broached the idea of arming the country with nuclear weapons.
“It’s possible that the problem gets worse,” Yoon went on, “and our country will introduce tactical nuclear weapons or build them on our own.”
And “if that’s the case, we can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities.”
The case for a nuclear South Korea
Polls show South Korea supports having its own nuclear deterrence but the risk of angering the United States and China weighs heavily against the move, which itself has major implications for the security framework of the Korean Peninsula and the greater Northeast Asian region.
While South Korean public support toward nuclear weapons acquisition has ranged between 50 and 70 percent throughout the past decade, recent polling shows that number has now surpassed 70 percent.
In a recent poll, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs observed, among other things, that “71 percent of South Korean respondents supported the development of a domestic nuclear weapons program to counter the growing threat from North Korea.”
Other reasons included increasing South Korea’s prestige in the eyes of the international community, while also allowing the country to stand up to China.
A similar poll conducted by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies went a step further and “found that 70.2 per cent were in favour – with 63.6 per cent favouring an independent nuclear deterrent even if it led to sanctions”.
In any case, South Korea is clearly unhappy with US efforts to maintain the status quo.
There is something hollow about Washington’s promises these days. Saying “America is back” doesn’t quite cut it.
South Korean proponents of the bomb argue that nuclear weapons are necessary for a South Korea facing a dangerous and uncertain region surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbours; critics on the other hand maintain that nuclear weapons, at best, will only bring about limited benefits for Seoul, while leading to significant costs and perhaps even greater instability on the Korean Peninsula.
Some things are, however, incontrovertible.
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The country lies directly south of historic rival North Korea, which has had the bomb since 2006.
Since the spectacular display of personal summit diplomacy between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in June 2018, which was long on promises and short on deliverables, Pyongyang has expanded its long-range strategic deterrent – aimed at the US homeland – while developing shorter-range tactical capabilities, aimed mostly at South Korea.
South Korea, unlike hapless Ukraine today, has a national insurance policy, with the US treaty-bound to defend it.
The question of US resolution is much in the air, as the credibility of the insurance policy remains untested in the face of real-world nuclear aggression.
If push came to shove, would Washington be willing to lose Los Angeles or Chicago to a North Korean reprisal?
Would the US abandon its long-time ally to spare the homeland?
Or would Washington adjust to the fait accompli of a quick North Korean takeover of the Peninsula?
A key reason for South Korea to proceed with acquiring nuclear weapons would be to directly deter North Korea, which is no longer interested in the complete or limited denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
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It’s only going to get worse, or as one South Korean expert put it, “Despite decades of efforts to denuclearise North Korea, we are faced with what looks like an imminent seventh nuclear test, and that may not be the end of it.”
South Koreans, more blunt and open than ever before, are fed with the usual chorus of more condemnations, UN Security Council Resolution and meaningless sanctions.
Despite America’s strong but superficial attachment to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and expected histrionics from the US State Department, South Korea could legally go nuclear in 12 months after formally withdrawing from the NPT in good faith.
In fact, for one South Korean diplomat, explaining the departure from the NPT would be “an easy day on the job”.
Friendly powers other than the US would not likely sanction Seoul beyond lip service.
Seoul’s withdrawal from the NPT, with the additional probability that Japan would follow, will ring alarm bells in Beijing, forcing President Xi to rethink his do-nothing approach to North Korea.
Fully expect North Korea to rock up to the negotiating table.
Professor Joseph Siracusa is Professor of Political History and International Diplomacy at Curtin University.