By Rebecca Johnson
Dr Rebecca Eleanor Johnson is the Executive Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy (AIDD).
LONDON (IDN) — In just the few weeks between the West’s New Year and the East’s Year of the Rabbit South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol has been making some very worrying remarks about getting nuclear weapons.
On 2 January 2023, Yoon reportedly called for the Republic of [South] Korea to have a greater role in managing nuclear weapons.
Asked by journalists if the US-ROK talks might lead to nuclear weapons being brought back into South Korean bases for the first time since 1991, US president Joe Biden bluntly responded “No”, and US spokespeople characterised Yoon’s remarks as having been “less than fully accurate”.
According to the New York Times, Yoon then doubled down on his remarks. At a briefing with South Korea’s defence and foreign ministries on 11 January, the president referred to the threats emanating from the nuclear-armed DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea), and said: “It’s possible that the problem gets worse, and our country will introduce tactical nuclear weapons or build them on our own… If that’s the case, we can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities.”
Pyongyang’s nuclear threat rhetoric and escalatory actions, such as launching ballistic missiles that land provocatively close to South Korea and Japan, have been ratcheting up fears in both countries. According to the NYT, DPRK president Kim Jong-un “has launched a record number of missiles and focused on developing new ones in 2022”.
For some time, Kim Jong-un’s erratic programmes of nuclear and ballistic missile tests have heightened fears across North-East Asia and provoked some politicians in South Korea and Japan to push for more visible security assurances and joint military exercises with the United States.
The destabilising impacts of years of nuclear sabre-rattling by North Korea’s despotic leader Kim Jong-un were also exacerbated by the hot-cold narcissistic relationship fostered by Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor.
Like Kim, the former US president enjoyed brandishing the US nuclear arsenal for his own personal purposes. Trump’s erratic behaviour as president has made it harder for other governments to trust or believe in US deterrence guarantees.
Conflicts and instability among nuclear-armed states
Yoon’s statements also need to be seen in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war. Vladimir Putin made disastrous miscalculations when he relied on Russia’s large nuclear arsenal to back up his reckless invasion of Ukraine and deter NATO from getting involved.
Putin misjudged again when he started issuing nuclear threats. Nuclear deterrence doctrines were left in tatters as it became clear that around 12,000 nuclear weapons on both sides failed to convince or compel the other side to back down.
As the war has escalated, so have Putin’s efforts to get his nuclear threats taken seriously enough to deter European governments from supplying Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons and equipment. Meanwhile, people all over the world are waking up to the very real risks and dangers of nuclear war.
The invasion of Ukraine by nuclear-armed Russia has led to countervailing responses around the world. Some leaders, such as Yoon, want greater access to nuclear weapons, while many other governments are under growing pressure to implement existing treaties and accelerate the complete prohibition and elimination of all nuclear arsenals. South Korea is in the first group, along with Ukraine, Sweden and Finland, which have been rushing to join NATO.
The impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on relations among the Security Council’s ‘P-5’ nuclear-armed states must also be factored in after Russia vetoed a compromise outcome document and then walked out of the Review Conference of the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in August 2022, causing that important multilateral meeting to be labelled a failure.
China’s growing military capabilities are also of growing concern in Seoul, noted the eminent nuclear policy analyst Jon Wolfsthal, a former White House national security adviser with diplomatic experience in North Korea.
In a recent blog titled ‘What the Hell is Happening in South Korea’, Wolfsthal wrote: “Senior South Korea officials have told me even the South Korean population has no illusions anymore about China. Even if South Korean officials do not worry about a direct clash, there is concern that a possible US-PRC [People’s Republic of China]… conflict could quickly involve the ROK.
At a minimum, South Korea does not want any of this to happen without having a direct say. This, as much as anything else, may be behind Yoon’s repeated calls for a role in nuclear decision making.”
The second response is most visible among non-nuclear governments in the NPT. During the much delayed NPT Review Conference in New York last year, 145 of the 191 NPT states parties signed a joint Humanitarian Statement, which unequivocally stated:
“The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination. All States share the responsibility to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, to prevent their vertical and horizontal proliferation and to achieve nuclear disarmament including through fulfilling the objectives of the NPT and achieving its universality.”
This Humanitarian Statement was led by Costa Rica, which had chaired the 2017 negotiations in the United Nations that achieved the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons [TPNW], which entered into international legal force in 2021 and held its very successful first meeting of states parties in Vienna in June 2022.
Yoon’s talk exacerbates the already complex and febrile situation in which many South Koreans feel insecure and afraid. The last thing President Yoon should do is attempt to carry out his threat to ‘have our own nuclear weapons’, but the reality is that South Korea, like Japan, has the technologies to make that happen.
Yoon Suk-yeol may pander to some of his supporters by canvassing this option, but unlikely that he’d be enabled to go ahead. The financial and political costs and risks of acquiring a nuclear arsenal would be massive. And taking any concrete steps down that road would fatally undermine the NPT and international non-proliferation efforts as well as South Korea’s own national and regional security. We must hope that Yoon and those egging him on would not be so foolish.
Christine Ahn, Founder and Executive Director of Women Cross DMZ has this to say: “Yoon should end the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace settlement. His predecessor Moon Jae-In helped broker talks between the US and DPRK that almost yielded such an agreement before talks broke down in 2019. Yoon’s nuclear talk plays into US plans to further militarize the peninsula in preparation for war against China. This is a dangerous move that will only further endanger the security of all Korean people and cement the Korean War.”
Choosing between nuclear abolition and nuclear annihilation
Governments do need to address the salient public fears about nuclear weapons and war, which have intensified around the world due to Putin’s war on Ukraine and nuclear threats. All the talk of ‘tactical nukes’ is just military obfuscation. Whatever their size or range firing any nuclear weapon would be for strategic impacts—and these would likely carry appalling humanitarian consequences no matter where they land.
That’s why the TPNW outlaws threatening to use as well as using nuclear weapons, along with a range of activities that could lead to anyone – government or individual—being able to acquire and use nuclear weapons. Nine leaders, however, already have nuclear arsenals at their disposal, and these are the really dangerous ones. Between them the NPT and TPNW have what is needed to bring about universal nuclear abolition. The nuclear-armed states are the problem, and all of them need to be made to comply with and implement global nuclear disarmament obligations—before it’s too late.
Nuclear disarmament is central to non-proliferation, and both require active commitments and continuous work, including building security, peace and confidence without nuclear weapons.
The first meeting of TPNW parties in Vienna in 2022 got off to a positive start by adopting a strong declaration and far-reaching action plan for universalisation and implementation, on which diplomatic and technical work is already being done.
The fundamental challenge is not about choosing nuclear proliferation or deterrence. Former defence and security officials know that nuclear weapons are not a sensible tool for deterrence. The real choice facing South Korea, North Korea, Russia, the United States and the rest of the world is between nuclear abolition or nuclear annihilation.
Banning and eliminating nuclear weapons is the only sane decision, and fully implementing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides the only legal obligations and practical means to take forward the practical steps to build a safer and more secure world free of nuclear weapons, to which all NPT states committed themselves in 2010. [IDN-InDepthNews — 22 January 2023]
Image credit: Asia-Pacific Leadership Network