The modern conceptualization of the middle power was born in the heyday of liberal internationalism with the formation of the United Nations in the 1940s. Up until the late 1960s, individual middle powers toyed with the idea of securing nuclear weapons. Australia and Canada at certain stages sought nuclear armament. However, their renunciation of that aim soon became associated with the wider aura of “do-goodism” or “good international citizenship” which from that point onwards, marked the concept.
One of the most characteristic middle power campaigns of the 1980s was the Australian and New Zealand effort to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific. This brought together all the characteristics of middle power diplomacy – middle powers building a coalition of smaller states in the Pacific acting across multiple multilateral forums in coordination with NGOs to constrain the actions of a major power while addressing good international citizen issues of arms control and the environment. Middle powers, almost by definition, have been against the spread of nuclear weapons.
How then, have we arrived at a situation in which a leading middle power is in the midst of a debate to secure an independent nuclear weapons capacity?
There are three potential academic answers to this question – and none of them give an adequate answer.
First, South Korea may not be a middle power. I’ve said it before, there are certain characteristics that distinguish South Korea from other middle powers: it was a late entrant; has never espoused the same consistency in values; is not inherently a status quo power; and to a degree lacks institutional capacity and depth. South Korea holds different positions from ‘ideal type’ middle powers, such as Canada and Australia on topics including the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Russia/Ukraine. As noted by other scholars, for South Korea, being a middle power is as much about status as it is about identity.
Second, middle powers as conceptualized in the 1980s, may no longer exist. Middle powers could be synchronic classification – a typology that cannot exist outside its specific timeframe of the post-war, Cold War, and post-Cold War era. Remove the liberal-internationalist context of the time period, and the structures that supported their existence also disappear. We no longer have Occidental Powers, have largely forgotten Non-Aligned Powers, and rarely use the term Superpowers. Why do we still use the term Middle Power? This could explain the gradual dissociation of traditional middle powers, such as Canada and Australia, from the concept.
In the same vein, an early middle power scholar noted that during periods of decreased security tension, middle powers balance major powers, and during periods of heightened security tension bandwagon with major powers. As South Korea has consistently been in an intermittent state of heightened security tension, its path as a middle power is distinct. Now, as China-U.S. tension increases, bandwagoning could be misconstrued as taking a greater burden by securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity.
In the same vein, there’s a strong argument to be made that middle powers were always a product of U.S.-led liberal-internationalism. The characteristic diplomatic behaviors of niche diplomacy were never ascribed to Saudi Arabia’s support for the spread of Wahhabi Islam, nor was good international citizenship ascribed to Iran’s support for Palestine. From this point of view, the middle power project was merely a five-decade effort to distinguish a small number of U.S. Western allies from other states which they at the time, viewed as less important – with all the inherent racism that such an approach entails. Reflecting this, middle powers were anti-nuclear because they were already protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This potentially explains non-Western states, which are rarely called middle powers, such as India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea, pursuing nuclear weapon programs.
There’s a lot to unpack in the above three academic answers. While how we use language and how we identify and label ourselves is important, whether South Korea’s calls itself a middle power or not, will do nothing to stop it securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity. Ultimately, it’s all just academic waffling. In the end, stopping South Korea from heading down the nuclear path requires less academic waffling, and more diplomacy.
Dr. Jeffery Robertson is Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from sinano1000 photostream on flickr Creative Commons.
Oorganized with great fanfare for the 70e anniversary of the security alliance between Washington and Seoul, the visit, at the end of April, to the United States of the conservative South Korean president, Yoon Seok-youl, did not dissipate the reciprocal distrust on military nuclear power. South Korea is worried about the deterioration of its security environment, North Korean nuclear development and tensions between Chinese, Russians and Americans. She hoped that Washington would agree to deploy atomic weapons on her soil for deterrence purposes, failing to let her develop her own arsenal.
Mr. Yoon and US President Joe Biden signed a “Washington Declaration” which provides for the creation of a “nuclear advisory group” to promote coordination on the deployment of US submarines, aircraft carriers and other bombers with nuclear capabilities. The objective is to enable South Korea to better understand the American concept of “extended deterrence” protecting her.
The initiative resembles the framework in place within NATO. It differs, however, in that it does not provide for the “nuclear sharing” desired by Seoul. And, in return for establishing the nuclear advisory group, Mr. Yoon pledged to abide by the obligations of the non-proliferation treaty and the U.S.-South Korea nuclear energy agreement. This amounts to renouncing to acquire a nuclear arsenal.
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“The positions of MM. Yoon and Biden do not reassure”responded the South Korean conservative daily Chosun Ilbo. They are “the product of the distrust that reigns between South Korea and the United States”adds Lee Je-hun, analyst of the center-left daily Hankyoreh.
The failure of reconciliation
This distrust is old since, in the 1970s, the United States, fearing an arms race, had blocked the inclinations of the authoritarian president, Park Chung-hee (1961-1979), to launch a nuclear development program. Mr. Park feared an abandonment by the American ally, in the wake of the rapprochement between Washington and Beijing and the withdrawal from Vietnam – where South Korean forces had fought at the request of the United States. At the same time, the US Congress was increasingly critical of its disastrous human rights record.
Also read the analysis: North Korea: With more frequent and longer-range missile launches, the threat from Pyongyang has increased tenfold since 1984
The question of the nuclear development of South Korea – now democratic – resurfaces in the midst of the crisis on the peninsula and against a backdrop of tensions in East Asia. The dialogue is at a standstill with Pyongyang, which is chaining missile fire and getting closer to Moscow and Beijing – Chinese and North Koreans having also strongly criticized the “Washington declaration”.
This article summarises the key insights from the briefing paper, shedding light on the nation’s nuclear posture, disarmament stance, and ongoing modernisation efforts.
The UK’s nuclear policy focuses on minimal credible nuclear deterrence, with resources dedicated to NATO defence. The briefing paper points out that “The UK does not have a policy of ‘no-first use’.”
This means the UK reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats.
Post-Cold War, the UK has taken disarmament steps in line with the NPT. The 2010 SDSR anticipated a 65% reduction in the nuclear stockpile by the mid-2020s.
However, the 2021 Integrated Review stated that “2010 commitments could no longer be met due to the current security environment.”
Consequently, the cap on the nuclear stockpile has been raised, raising concerns about the UK Government’s disarmament commitment.
Capabilities and Infrastructure
The UK’s nuclear stockpile cap, as per the briefing paper, is “no more than 260 warheads.” The nation operates a continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) and is the only recognised nuclear state with a single deterrent system.
The deterrent is based at HM Naval Base Clyde in western Scotland. Submarines are stationed at Faslane, and warheads are stored at Coulport. Maintenance for the Vanguard class is conducted at Faslane, while deep maintenance and refit take place at HM Naval Base Devonport in Plymouth.
Both HMNB Clyde and Devonport dockyard are managed by Babcock International. A 15-year contract with the ABL Alliance supports the Trident strategic weapon system at Coulport and Faslane.
The UK’s nuclear warheads are manufactured and maintained at two AWE sites in Aldermaston and Burghfield, Berkshire. In November 2020, the MOD announced that AWE would return to direct Government ownership.
Modernisation: Dreadnought Programme
The Dreadnought programme aims to replace the UK’s Vanguard class submarines with a new Dreadnought class by the early 2030s. A Common Missile Compartment (CMC) for the SSBN is being developed in partnership with the US.
The briefing paper estimates the cost for designing and manufacturing four SSBNs at £31 billion, with a £10 billion contingency. The UK is also participating in the US service-life extension programme for the Trident II D5 missile.
In February 2020, the UK Government confirmed a programme to replace the Mk4 nuclear warhead.
The infrastructure supporting the UK’s nuclear weapons underscores the extensive network enabling the UK’s nuclear capabilities. The House of Commons Library briefing paper offers valuable insights into the complexities and challenges surrounding the UK’s nuclear landscape.
Hidden away in the private room of an underground restaurant in Seoul, a disparate group of South Koreans have gathered for a clandestine lunch. Among the mix are politicians, scientists, and military people, some of whose identities are too sensitive to reveal. This is the meeting of the newly formed Forum for Nuclear Strategy, and their lunchtime agenda is ambitious – to plot out how South Korea can develop nuclear weapons.
This once-fringe idea has exploded into the mainstream over the past months. Even South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol raised the possibility during a defence meeting, making him the only president to have put this option on the table in recent times. Now newspaper columns trumpet the idea daily, while a staggering three-quarters of the public support it. South Koreans have grown anxious about their nuclear-armed neighbour to the north, and on Wednesday Mr Yoon is heading to the White House, seeking President Joe Biden’s help.
Since then, the geopolitical situation has shifted dramatically. North Korea is building ever-more sophisticated nuclear weapons that can target cities across the US, leaving people to question whether Washington would still come to South Korea’s defence.
Here is the scenario they chew over: a belligerent Kim Jong-un attacks South Korea, forcing the US to intervene. Mr Kim then threatens to detonate a nuclear bomb over the US mainland unless it withdraws from the war. What does Washington do? Does it risk having San Francisco reduced to rubble to save Seoul? Probably not, is the conclusion those at the secret lunchtime meeting have come to.
“It is irrational to think another country should protect us. This is our problem and our responsibility,” said Choi Ji-young, a forum member and member of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party.
The chairman of the forum, academic Cheong Seong-chang, presented their suggested plan. The next time the North tests a nuclear weapon, Seoul would withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). If, within six months, Mr Kim has not agreed to discuss giving up some of his weapons, Seoul would start building its own. Mr Cheong argues that this would reduce the probability of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, as Mr Kim would be less likely to attack, knowing the South could strike back.
But Jenny Town, from the US-based think tank 38 North, challenges the assumption that a nuclear-armed South would make the North less adventurous. “More nuclear weapons does not make the world safer from nuclear use,” she said. “If you look at India and Pakistan as an example, this is not what we have seen. If anything, being nuclear-armed has sort of given them both the green light to go a little further.”
A nuclear-armed South Korea is absolutely not what Washington wants. Yet, this beast is partly of America’s making. In 2016, then-President Donald Trump accused South Korea of free-riding. He threatened to make Seoul pay for the US troops stationed on its soil, or else he would withdraw them. The fear those words instilled in people has not lessened with time. An increasing number of South Koreans, acutely aware that America’s promises are only as good as its next leader, now favour building the bomb.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, at a local sauna in Seoul, people young and old from all backgrounds gathered to ease their weekly aches, while indulging in beer and fried chicken. While it might seem strange to discuss nuclear proliferation in such a setting, these days, it is almost in the realm of small talk.
“The US is not going to use its nukes to defend us, so we should be in control of our own defence,” said 31-year-old Koo Sung-wook, who swayed this way during his time in the military. He served in 2010, during a major crisis when North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four people.
“It felt like a total emergency. Units were calling their parents and writing wills,” he recounted. Now he worries not just about North Korea, but China too. “We are surrounded by these great powers and walking on eggshells around them. To be competitive, we need to have nukes.”
Hong In-su is wary of South Korea getting nuclear weapons but thinks the country needs them
Another woman was torn over whether the US would defend South Korea, and thought it “better to have nukes just in case”, while a young mother worried that Seoul’s current relationship with the US could change at any moment.
Washington is now scrambling to reassure its ally of its “iron-clad” commitment to its defence. Earlier this month it stationed a gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the southern port of Busan. But to the frustration of US policymakers, such reassuring gestures no longer seem to be working.
Seoul’s politicians have grown wary of being kept in the dark, unclear about what would trigger the US president to push the nuclear button on their behalf. Currently, there is no requirement for Mr Biden to even tell Mr Yoon before doing so. “At the very least we could build in a mandatory phone call, so long as it is understood that this is still the US president’s decision,” Ms Town said.
Yang Uk, a defence analyst with the Seoul-based Asan Institute, was in the room with President Yoon when he made his remarks about South Korea going nuclear. He claims Mr Yoon was indirectly pressuring the US. “The US is so reluctant to discuss its nuclear policy with South Korea and yet if a nuclear war broke out on the peninsula we are the ones who would suffer the most,” he said.
Seoul is pushing to be more involved in the planning and execution around nuclear use. That could mean having US nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea, or to have a nuclear sharing arrangement, similar to that in Europe, where South Korea is able to use US weapons in the event of a war. A less drastic option would be to create a joint nuclear-planning group.
US forces practice defending South Korea from a North Korean attack
The US is unlikely to offer up much, but knows it must deliver something concrete that President Yoon can chalk up as a win, and sell to the South Korean public. Even so, it may prove too late. This once inconceivable idea is now so firmly planted in the South Korean psyche, it is difficult to see how it can be uprooted.
Going nuclear is a mammoth decision. The current international order is built on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and those that threaten this order, such as Iran and North Korea, have paid a high price. Analysts say the South Korean public has probably not considered the consequences. The US could pull out of its defence commitment, China might retaliate ferociously by hounding South Korea with sanctions, and their country could end up isolated, another failed pariah state, its dazzling international reputation in tatters.
At the sauna, people seemed unperturbed by these scenarios. Only one woman conceded that if it meant South Korea becoming “an axis of evil” then it was probably not worth it.
But that is unlikely to happen. South Korea is too strategically and economically important for it to be shunned like North Korea. Most analysts do not even believe the US would end its decades-long military alliance. Instead, the concern is that a potential South Korean nuclear armament would create such a crack in the non-proliferation regime, it would cause other countries to follow.
Only 82-year-old Hong In-su seemed to grapple with the dangers ahead. She quoted a Korean proverb that roughly translates to “you fall in your own poop”, or in other words, this could seriously backfire.
“I do think nuclear weapons will come back to harm us,” she said. “I feel bad for the next generation.”
SEOUL — After South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden reached a landmark agreement at their recent summit, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korea’s leader, said the two had “reconfirmed the hostility of the rulers and military warmongers of Washington and Seoul towards our country.”
She also warned that the deal, called the Washington Declaration, “will only result in making peace and security of Northeast Asia and the world be exposed to more serious danger.”
At the summit, Biden and Yoon issued a statement outlining the Nuclear Consultative Group, a new channel through which the two sides are to discuss the possible use of U.S. nuclear weapons to protect South Korea from the danger posed by North Korea.
Behind the deal is growing trepidation in South Korea about its neighbor’s growing nuclear arsenal. There also had been rumblings from Yoon and other politicians about the South possibly developing its own nuclear weapons.
Seoul and Washington say their agreement will help the allies share information on nuclear and strategic weapon plans in response to North Korea’s provocations and to conduct regular consultations on joint military operations. The leaders also announced that the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to South Korea “will be made constantly and routinely.”
Yoon and Biden celebrated their agreement as a deepening of their countries’ alliance. Since returning home, Yoon’s approval rating has increased by 1.9 percentage points.
However, in the near term, the agreement could have the effect of creating more regional tensions, as attempting to strengthen extended deterrence by deploying more heavy weaponry to the Korean Peninsula risks further antagonizing Pyongyang, analysts say.
John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, argues that the Washington Declaration “makes no effort to initiate a process of tension reduction with North Korea.” To the contrary, Delury says the declaration is “not going to make any progress for peace since that’s not even on the list of goals.”
Biden called the declaration “a prudent step to reinforce extended deterrence” and warned that a nuclear attack by North Korea against the U.S. or its allies would be “unacceptable” and would “result in the end” of that regime.
Jenny Town, director of the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center in the U.S., says that the North Koreans will use this declaration “to further justify their choices on development of weapons of mass destruction and try to boost domestic support for further development on this track despite a difficult economic situation.”
Kim Yo Jong also hinted at a backlash, saying that North Korea’s exercise of self-defense will become stronger in response to military actions taken by the U.S. and South Korea.
Nevertheless, Delury cautions against seeing North Korea’s next moves as tied directly to the Biden-Yoon agreement. “Not everything in the coming weeks and months will be a reaction to the summit since the summit and the Washington Declaration are more expressions of a process that has clearly been underway [for some time],” adding that current U.S. and South Korean policies are “helping to keep North Korea on its current course.”
Similarly, Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst and policy practice area lead at LMI Consulting, highlighted that North Korea has long been set on a path of aggression and weapons development. “Extended deterrence or not, Kim is set on pursuing the path he carved out for his country’s nuclear development,” she says.
“So long as Kim continues to conduct weapons tests and threatens the security of the region,” Soo Kim said, “tensions will remain.”
Christine Ahnfounder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ and campaign coordinator for Korea Peace Now!
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden pledged to deploy nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea for the first time in 40 years. Alongside South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, Biden also pledged to involve officials from Seoul in nuclear planning operations targeting North Korea. The visit between the two leaders comes as the U.S. and South Korea mark 70 years of military alliance under 1953’s Mutual Defense Treaty, signed at the close of active conflict in the Korean War. No peace treaty was ever signed by the North and South Korean governments, meaning the two countries are still technically at war. We discuss continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula with Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, and the coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now! Ahn says the Korean War marked the dawn of the military-industrial complex and that ever-more militarization of the peninsula is not the answer. “There is momentum now to transform this state of war into a permanent peace,” she says.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we end today’s show looking at the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. On Thursday, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress and warned nuclear threat posed by North Korea. On Wednesday, Joe Biden pledged to deploy nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea for the first time in 40 years and to establish a new bilateral Nuclear Consultative Group, where the United States would involve officials from South Korea in nuclear planning operations targeting North Korea. On Wednesday, President Biden issued a stark warning to North Korea.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies or partisans — or, partners — is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.
AMY GOODMAN: President Biden was speaking in the Rose Garden at a news conference with the South Korean president.
To talk more about his visit to Washington and tension on the Korean Peninsula, we’re joined now by Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War. Christine is also the coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now!, speaking to us from Hawaii.
And we thank you for being up in the middle of the night for this conversation, Christine. Talk about the significance of the meeting at the White House between the U.S. and South Korean presidents and what President Biden has promised.
CHRISTINE AHN: Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me on.
The announcement that the U.S. would send nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea is a very provocative and dangerous move. It’s the first time that U.S. nuclear weapons have been on or around the Korean Peninsula in 40 years. In fact, most Americans have no idea that the nuclear crisis actually began with the U.S. bringing nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1956, three years after the signing of the ceasefire, and had them there up until George Bush Sr. So, that is not only a provocative act directed at North Korea, but also at China.
And this is actually throwing fuel into already a — into a fire that has been increasingly dangerous. There have been massive military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea this spring, all last year. Last year, I think North Korea conducted 90 missile tests. And the situation is just getting even more dangerous. There is a three-star general, Dan Leaf, who says of all the conflicts currently taking place right now, whether it’s between U.S. and China over Taiwan or the Russia-Ukraine war, that the Korean Peninsula is perhaps the one that may be the closest to a nuclear war. So, it is a very dangerous moment.
And the fact that the U.S. will be sending U.S. nuclear submarines to the Korean Peninsula, and for Biden to make such a statement, that is akin to Trump’s “fire and fury” era, where he threatened to totally destroy North Korea, this is a wake-up call, I think, for the American people and, obviously, for South Koreans, who feel that Yoon is basically drawing the Korean Peninsula on the frontline of the U.S. war against China.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Christine Ahn, this actually is being billed as a compromise. As part of the agreement, President Yoon renewed a pledge not to pursue the development of a South Korean nuclear arsenal. Your response?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, it is, in the sense that there is growing concern in South Korea for its own domestic nuclear weapons program in light of the tactical nuclear weapons coming from North Korea or the program in North Korea.
But I think the problem is, is it’s not addressing the underlying issue, which is that the Korean Peninsula is continuingly at a state of war. This is actually the 70th anniversary of the ceasefire. This July 27th marks 70 years that the U.S. commander, the North Korean commander and the Chinese representative from the Voluntary People’s Army signed the armistice agreement, where they committed to halting the war, but they never actually followed up with their commitment, which was to return within 90 days to negotiate a peace settlement.
So, what we’re facing is this continual militarization. South Korea now is the sixth-largest military spender in the world. The U.S., we know, is the world’s largest, our budget approaching a trillion dollars, more than next nine countries combined. And it is an unsustainable crisis. And I think the way that the narrative of deterrence is as if there isn’t violence, as if they are preparing to prevent violence in the future, when in fact we know violence is taking place right now, whether it’s the division of families, whether it’s the suffering of the North Korean people, whether it’s the ongoing investment in militarization that should be otherwise invested in things that make us secure. I mean, I think about — I’m here in Hawaii, and we’re facing the Red Hill crisis, where, you know, this militarization means we are polluting Oahu’s aquifer. And this is the jet fuel that will basically fuel the ships or the bombers that will go and wage wars in Asia.
So we have to break down this mythology that this is actually what is making us secure, when in fact what we need to do is negotiate a peace agreement. And that is gaining traction among people, from the military to nuclear scientists to, you know, people like President Carter. We have to normalize relations with North Korea to achieve the things that we want.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this mobilization to end the Korean War scheduled for the end of July? And also talk about China’s response to all of this.
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, first, just since we’re short on time, I wanted to make sure that we are mobilizing hundreds to come to Washington, D.C. I hope, Amy, you will be there, or somebody from Democracy Now! But July 27th marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice. And we are saying it’s time to end this war, this war that inaugurated the military-industrial complex for the United States. It set forth the U.S. to become the world’s police. And it has been the war that has maintained this constant threat on the Korean Peninsula. So, we are gathering multiple organizations, faith-based, Vets for Peace, and Korean American Coalition. So, we are gathering — the website is KoreaPeaceAction.org. And we’ll be having a congressional briefing with our peace champions.
We want to also raise awareness that there is the first-ever Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act. It was reintroduced by Brad Sherman in the last Congress. We had nearly 50 co-sponsors of that bill. And so, we need —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Christine.
CHRISTINE AHN: Yeah. What I’m saying is, Amy, there is momentum now to transform the state of war into a permanent peace. And that’s where we need Americans to recognize, this is America’s oldest war. It’s on our responsibility to bring closure to this war.
AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, also the coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now!
That does it for our show. On Saturday, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González will be speaking at 10 a.m. at American University in Washington on an all-day conference titled “In Search of a New U.S. Policy for a New Latin America: Burying 200 Years of the Monroe Doctrine.” Check democracynow.org for details. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.
The U.S. and South Korea have countered North Korea’s increasing aggression by expanding joint military drills in the region, part of the U.S.’s effort to strengthen its overall defense posture in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of a growing challenge from China. In February, officials from the two countries simulated a North Korean nuclear attack in a “tabletop” exercise at the Pentagon that was aimed partly at reinforcing Washington’s security commitment.
But the idea of a nuclear-armed South Korea has support even among people who are confident in the U.S. alliance, the 2022 poll showed.
Rep. Lee Jae-jung, a left-leaning lawmaker who opposes nuclear armament, said Washington’s focus on other issues, like the potential for confrontation with China over Taiwan, has prompted South Koreans to consider their own responsibility for self-defense.
“The fact that the nuclear-armed North is not a priority for the Biden administration makes the Koreans nervous,” she said.
A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea remained “ironclad.”
“The Yoon administration has made clear that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program and that it is working closely with the United States through existing extended deterrence mechanisms,” the spokesperson said.
Experts say there are several reasons South Korea will not be acquiring nuclear weapons any time soon.
South Korea is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, known as the NPT, which bars countries from seeking them, and withdrawing from it could bring international sanctions.
Nuclear armament would most likely anger both China, South Korea’s largest trading partner, and the U.S., its longtime defense guarantor. A nuclear-armed South Korea could also inspire other countries in the region, like Japan and Australia, to develop arsenals of their own.
“Anybody who genuinely believes that South Korea will get its own nuclear weapons has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about,” said Jung Se-hyon, a former unification minister.
“But the robust support for proliferation does speak to the Korean people’s fears of conflict,” he added, “and the South Korean public just doesn’t trust what the Americans are saying right now.”
Official U.S. policy is for all of the Korean Peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons, meaning Washington would not support a nuclear-armed South Korea. Some argue it should instead start sharing its nuclear weapons with South Korea or redeploy the tactical nuclear weapons it withdrew from the country at the end of the Cold War.
“South Korea is actually staying naked without nuclear weapons, and I have long argued that we need nuclear parity on this peninsula, regardless of the consequences,” said Kim Tae-woo, who was an adviser to conservative former President Lee Myung-bak.
South Korea previously tried to acquire nuclear weapons in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon considered withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, said Ellen Kim, the deputy Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“What is different now is that there’s a nuclear-armed North Korea that threatens to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear South Korea,” Kim said, “and North Korea continues to advance its nuclear missile capability.”
With North Korea testing weapons thought to be able to strike anywhere in the U.S., some South Koreans worry the U.S. will abandon them in a conflict with North Korea. Others fear that the U.S. will miscalculate and entrap them in a potential nuclear war with North Korea or China. Having its own nuclear arsenal, supporters say, would allow South Korea to decide whether and when it fights a nuclear war.
There is also concern that U.S. troops could still be withdrawn one day, an idea floated by former President Donald Trump.
That cocktail of uncertainty, Kim said, is “driving South Korea’s nuclear debate.”
Rep. Jang Hye-yeong, a member of the progressive Justice Party, said South Koreans have not fully debated the pros and cons of nuclear armament because the subject is still somewhat taboo.
“If we as a country really have an honest discussion about the risks of developing our own nuclear arsenal, I believe the public’s support will decrease,” she said.
Some South Koreans say they are primarily looking for reassurance.
“North Korea is firing more missiles, China could invade Taiwan, and politics in the United States are very unstable right now,” said Lee Hak-joon, 24, a public affairs student at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. “The United States needs to show us that we can really rely on them to protect us.”
WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden greeted his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol for a state visit Wednesday at which they will announce a beefed-up US nuclear shield for Washington’s vital ally in the face of an aggressive North Korea.
A military honor guard and hundreds of guests massed outside the White House where Yoon and his wife, Kim Keon Hee, arrived for a day of pomp and ceremony — and far-reaching geostrategic discussions.
Standing alongside Yoon, Biden lauded what he called the “unbreakable bond” of the countries’ “iron-clad alliance,” forged in the Korean War seven decades ago.
Today, the allies are economic powerhouses and partners in keeping a “free and open” Asia-Pacific region, Biden said, adding: “Ours is a future filled with unimaginable opportunities.”
Yoon and Biden will meet together in the Oval Office and hold a joint press conference before ending the day with a lavish state dinner in the ceremonial East Room.
Ahead of Yoon’s arrival, senior US officials told reporters that the two leaders would announce measures to reinforce deterrence against North Korea, including the first deployment of a US nuclear missile submarine to the country in decades.
What will be known as the Washington Declaration will also create a US-South Korean consultative group, giving Seoul more information and input on nuclear policy — although Washington will retain sole command of its weapons, officials said.
The arrangement — responding to ever-growing tension over communist North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear arsenal — echoes moves last seen when Washington oversaw the defense of Europe against the Soviet Union.
“The United States has not taken these steps, really, since the height of the Cold War with our very closest handful of allies in Europe. And we are seeking to ensure that by undertaking these new procedures, these new steps, that our commitment to extended deterrence is unquestionable,” a senior official said.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed that there are no plans to station US nuclear weapons in South Korea — a difference from the Cold War, when US strategic weapons were deployed to Europe.
In addition, Seoul will reiterate its pledge in the declaration not to seek its own nuclear arsenal.
– Submarine, aircraft carriers –
“We’ll announce that we intend to take steps to make our deterrence more visible through the regular deployment of strategic assets, including a US nuclear ballistic submarine visit to South Korea, which has not happened since the early 1980s,” an official said.
In addition to submarines, there will be a “regular cadence” of other major platforms, “including bombers or aircraft carriers,” the official said, emphasizing however that there will be “no basing of those assets and certainly not nuclear weapons.”
Yoon is only the second foreign leader invited for a state visit by Biden and he and his wife were greeted with full military honors at the White House.
On Tuesday, Yoon and Biden visited the Korean War Memorial, which features life-sized steel statues of US soldiers marching during the 1950-53 war against the communist north.
Yoon also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and joined US Vice President Kamala Harris for a tour of a NASA facility near Washington.
Yoon will address a joint session of Congress on Thursday and have lunch with Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. On Friday, he will visit MIT and Harvard University in Boston, before returning home on Saturday.
US President Joe Biden welcomed South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to the White House on Wednesday to commemorate seventy years of the US-South Korea alliance and the war that forged it—but this state visit is no backward-looking affair. While the top items on the agenda (nuclear weapons and microchips) were invented nearer to 1900 than today, the two leaders are navigating the political tensions around those technologies to find a common future. Below, Atlantic Council experts break down the two leaders’ Washington Declaration on nuclear weapons, how the leaders are addressing Seoul’s concerns over US industrial policy, and more.
This post will be updated as the Yoon visit unfolds and more reactions come in.
This is the day US-South Korea truly became a nuclear-armed alliance
The new Nuclear Consultative Group that Biden and Yoon announced today for the South Korea-US alliance is a major step forward for the alliance’s efforts to deter, prepare for, and respond to North Korea’s nuclear coercion tactics and aggression. Today may be marked as the day that the US-South Korea alliance truly became a nuclear-armed alliance—even if the nuclear weapons are still US-owned and US-controlled, we can now consider nuclear weapons to be an alliance capability.
However, this is just a step and one that requires a great deal of follow-through to realize its promise. This announcement opens the door for a whole new level of necessary hard work in the alliance on nuclear issues, as the presidents alluded to today. War plans and training will have to be continually revised to account for new approaches and new realities, particularly including North Korea’s rapidly growing strategic and tactical nuclear and missile capabilities. The alliance will have to conduct new military exercises and table-top simulations with nuclear considerations at the forefront, incorporating the lessons learned each time. Mindsets will also have to change—rather than focusing on how the United States will “provide” extended nuclear deterrence to South Korea through threats of US nuclear punishment, the focus going forward should be on how to integrate US and South Korean capabilities and approaches to a wide spectrum of nuclear and non-nuclear aggression. The mindset within the alliance will also have to fully come to grips with the harsh reality that nuclear deterrence may fail, meaning that the alliance should be prepared to be resilient in the face of nuclear attacks and to launch a coordinated counterattack as an alliance.
Today’s important step may be moving onto uncertain new terrain for the US-South Korea alliance, but this is not new territory for the United States. In fact, it is a step that was probably long overdue. Experts in South Korea and the United States had been openly advocating for such a mechanism for years, often citing the model of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), which was founded in 1966. There is a reason that NATO is held up as an example of how nuclear and non-nuclear armed allies can work together on nuclear deterrence and response. Even if NATO’s nuclear mechanisms are not perfect and the US-South Korea alliance is different from NATO in many ways, there is much to be learned from over seventy years of working with non-nuclear US allies in the nuclear-armed NATO alliance. Washington should also work with NATO allies to help ensure that South Korea will be invited to learn from NATO more directly, through involvement in NATO deterrence-related institutions and exercises. This should include, for example, official observer status for these allies in NATO’s Steadfast Noon nuclear exercises, invitations to selected NATO NPG activities, and regular participation in NATO nuclear educational programs.
—Markus Garlauskas is director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Indo-Pacific Security Initiative and former US national intelligence officer for North Korea.
A helpful step forward on nuclear deterrence—but also a stopgap measure
Assuring allies is a stated goal of US nuclear strategy. By assuring allies that they are protected by US nuclear weapons, the United States can maintain stability in important regions and dissuade our allies from building independent nuclear arsenals, contributing to our nonproliferation goals.
During the Cold War, the United States assured South Korea in part by maintaining forward-deployed nuclear weapons on Korean territory. They were removed at the end of the Cold War, and some argue that they should be returned.
The Biden administration’s announcement aims to take measures short of nuclear deployments to assure South Korea. The administration renamed and promised to deepen long-standing dialogues between Washington and Seoul on nuclear issues.
This is a helpful step forward. There is more the United States can do to strengthen assurance short of deployments, such as more detailed discussions on nuclear deterrence scenarios. This announcement also gives a concrete win to Yoon to bring home to Seoul.
Ultimately, however, this is a stopgap measure. To deal with the growing North Korean and Chinese nuclear threats, the United States will soon need theater nuclear weapons deployable and deployed to Asia.
One obvious option is the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). This system was put in place by then US President Donald Trump and canceled by Biden. But bipartisan majorities in Congress have restored funding to the program.
—Matthew Kroenig is vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the Council’s director of studies. He formerly served as a nuclear-weapons expert in the US Department of Defense and intelligence community.
Missing from the package of assurance measures is US homeland missile defense
The set of measures announced by Biden and Yoon will be helpful in reassuring a nervous South Korean population that the United States can be counted upon to help deter North Korean nuclear threats. The regular, temporary deployment of US nuclear-capable forces to South Korea, creation of a new bilateral nuclear consultative group, and better integrating South Korean conventional assets into the nuclear deterrence mission should help reinforce the deterrence signal meant for the North Korean leadership.
Yet these important steps may not address fully the underlying dilemma that provokes South Korean angst over the US nuclear umbrella: Would the United States use its nuclear weapons against a North Korea that is growing its capability to target American cities with nuclear weapons? Having the nuclear capabilities to strike North Korea is only part of the deterrence equation. The United States must also convince the adversary that it has the will to use these weapons in the face of nuclear retaliation.
The United States today minimizes that risk through the deployment of a national missile defense system comprised of forty-four long-range ground-based interceptors. The Biden administration will update the system and expand the number of interceptors by twenty starting in 2028, though it is unclear whether this will be sufficient to stay ahead of the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat.
The United States does not rely only on missile defense to counter the North Korean threat. Rather, it employs missile-defeat tactics meant to eliminate the missile threat prior to launch. Through this combination of missile defense/defeat and the threat of nuclear retaliation, the United States signals to North Korea that any nuclear use against the United States or its allies would be both futile and fatal. By taking steps to protect the homeland against North Korean ICBMs the United States makes clear its willingness to run risks on behalf of its allies. In this sense, homeland missile defense should be included in the package of assurance measures discussed by the two countries.
—Robert M. Soofer is a senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, where he leads its Nuclear Strategy Project. He formerly served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy.
US assurances keep South Korea away from its own nuclear weapons—for now
News from the White House today reveals that the United States will, for the first time, provide South Korea with a central planning role for the use of US nuclear weapons in conflict scenarios with North Korea. It is a move akin to how the United States integrates NATO allies in conflict preparations and plans. While perhaps challenging for the larger nuclear non-proliferation regime and significant for security dynamics and stability on the Korean Peninsula, recent events make this increased nuclear sharing understandable. This growing and deepening cooperation in the nuclear realm is one way the United States is attempting to reassure South Korea about its commitment to protect and defend its ally amid a worsening security environment. Similar are the Freedom Shield and Warrior Shield FTX military exercises the two states jointly conducted last month—the largest such exercises undertaken in five years.
Such reassurance is needed in light of former US President Donald Trump’s public discussion of withdrawing US troops from South Korea unless it upped its financial contributions for hosting them (and the possibility of a second Trump administration or election of a Trump acolyte in 2024 who makes good on such ideas). Further integration of the South Koreans into US planning can also be understood as a way to try to stave off growing domestic interest in an indigenous South Korean nuclear weapons option, which may be an increasingly popular conversation topic ahead of South Korea’s presidential elections in 2027. Moreover, an expanding North Korean nuclear arsenal understandably generates increasing nervousness and insecurity among South Koreans. These ongoing dynamics between the United States and South Korea are emblematic of the kinds of difficult conversations and tradeoffs Washington may need to make with its currently non-nuclear allies in a worsening regional security environment.
Currently, the United States remains committed to upholding nuclear non-proliferation norms, including taking increasingly significant steps to try to forestall allied proliferation. However, given that tensions are growing in key regions around the globe and the decision to attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is ultimately a state’s own choice, the United States may soon need to ask uncomfortable questions and reexamine its historical commitment to keeping allies away from their own nuclear weapons. A point may arrive where allied reassurance hits its limit and/or the United States views allied proliferation as augmenting the US security position vis-à-vis some hostile actor or actors rather than undermining it. US policymakers would do well to think through these difficult tradeoffs sooner rather than later.
—Rachel Whitlark is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
US elections and a transition of South Korean command raise bigger questions
The Washington Declaration demonstrates an important step toward strengthening the US-South Korea alliance. However, in short order it may not have the ability to decrease the South Korean public’s desire for an indigenous nuclear weapon capability. The declaration and plans for rotation of a US nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea is likely to draw ire from not just North Korea but China as well. However, overall nuclear employment decision-making will still rest with Washington.
Any concerns surrounding US abandonment will likely not be resolved within one US administration. With the 2024 US presidential election looming, it is unclear whether the winner of the election will hold similar views toward cooperative decision-making on nuclear deterrence.
Yoon’s declaration of commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a quick turn from his earlier comments in which he signaled possible support for South Korea one day developing its own nuclear weapons. It begs the question of whether Washington’s decision to further include South Korea in this manner after Yoon’s comments will extend to other regional allies. And in the long term, the declaration does not address concerns surrounding the transition of wartime operational control of the allies’ joint forces to South Korea. The question remains: How can a South Korean general be in charge of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command in a conflict when final say on nuclear weapons will always reside in Washington?
—Jessica Taylor is a nonresident fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She served in South Korea from 2019 to 2021 as an international relations strategist for the headquarters command staffs of United Nations Command, ROK/US Combined Forces Command, and US Forces Korea.
More can be done to convince North Koreans not to follow Kim Jong Un into war
The joint statement issued by Biden and Yoon comprehensively affirms the strength of the US-South Korea alliance and demonstrates the shared values of both nations. While it gives particular attention to North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs, its sincerity of commitment across a range of issues provides a firm basis for further maturation of the alliance.
And yet, what the statement did not say also matters. North Korea is perilously close to being able to hold American cities at risk. Two weeks ago, it successfully tested what appears to be a solid-fuel long-range missile. Simply putting North Korea on notice that, as the leaders’ joint statementemphasized, “a DPRK nuclear test would be met with a strong and resolute response” might not be enough. Should North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have the audacity to test a long-range missile that successfully detonates a warhead, it’s likely because he believes that showing he possesses such a credible threat will make the United States too risk adverse to use meaningful force against him.
The danger is not that Kim might simply decide to attack South Korean or US cities but rather that this credible of a threat might give him potentially game-changing leverage because it would undermine the credibility of US deterrence. If Kim comes to believe he can deter a regime-ending response, he might decide he can “safely” use that leverage to coerce South Korea into favorable political concessions—something likely to result in miscalculation and conflict. This is a dangerous development that is decades in the making. Yoon and Biden inherited this mess and are not to blame for where we are, but it is time to start doing more than threatening consequences.
What can be done? Rather than focusing on deterring Kim—who may not be deterrable—the alliance should be aggressively waging a public information campaign to convince elites and others in North Korea that following Kim into conflict is the greater risk. If, at the brink of a conflict, they believe Kim is to blame, many of these ordinarily loyal people—in charge of critical weapons and military formations—might be deterred from engaging in hostilities if they feel they have credible alternatives for them and their families. Although not likely to be as successful as the peaceful capitulation of East German and Soviet elites at the end of the Cold War, if a critical mass come to believe that there is hope for them in a life after Kim, the potentially devastating costs of a war on the Korean Peninsula could be significantly reduced. A good start for the next joint statement might be to publicly commit to fair treatment for North Koreans if—should war occur—they refrain from fighting.
—Fredrick “Skip” Vincenzo, US Navy (ret.), is a senior fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Trading Los Angeles for Seoul? The Washington Declaration and the US nuclear umbrella
Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the United States has striven to ensure the credibility of its nuclear umbrella both to deter potential aggressors from attacking US allies by conventional or nuclear means and to reassure US allies that they do not need to deploy their own nuclear weapons. That credibility was strongest in cases where a potential adversary lacked the means of directly attacking the US homeland. With its own territory and people out of harm’s way, the United States would be able to retaliate with impunity. However, with the advent of nuclear weapons systems capable of directly targeting the United States, Washington and its NATO allies devised what would be described as a “seamless web of deterrence,” namely by ensuring dominance at each escalatory step. Thus, when the then-Soviet Union deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe, the Carter administration with NATO concurrence responded by deploying its own. Were the Soviet Union to attack European NATO allies with intermediate-range nuclear weapons, the United States would be able to respond proportionately without having to resort to escalating and utilizing its central strategic nuclear forces.
The United States decided to withdraw its tactical nuclear forces from the Korean Peninsula in 1991, partly based on the hope that this would help persuade North Korea to forswear its nuclear weapons program. Since then, Washington has relied on periodic consultations in various formats to reassure its Korean allies that they can continue to depend on the US nuclear umbrella. However, with the advent of an aggressive nuclear modernization program by North Korea, which includes development not only of tactical nuclear weapons, but of ICBMs capable of striking the United States as well, the US nuclear umbrella covering South Korea appears to be fraying. Accordingly, the tide of South Korean public opinion has turned: seven-in-ten South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear arsenal, and a majority supports the return of US nuclear weapons to South Korea—long anathema to the South Korean public. This no doubt also reflects, in part, concerns about China. More broadly, China’s own nuclear buildup, its increasing backing of North Korea, and the growing risk of US-China military conflict over Taiwan all impinge on South Korea’s security.
Enhanced coordination of nuclear planning between Washington and Seoul as outlined in the Washington Declaration is designed to bolster Seoul’s confidence in the US nuclear umbrella. This is an important step forward and, in the short term, may alleviate pressure on South Korea to go nuclear. Ultimately, however, US force posture with respect to North Korea and a consistent, highly visible US commitment to the defense of South Korea will be the major determinants of whether this position remains sustainable.
—Thomas Cynkin is a nonresident senior fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the practice lead, Japan and Northeast Asia, of the Transnational Strategy Group, a global consulting firm operating at the nexus of policy and business.
As the world approaches a new era of strategic competition with revisionist autocracies, the existing transatlantic political, economic, and security entities need to be further expanded to build a trilateral Atlantic-Pacific community.
Popular support for a South Korean nuclear deterrent, while strongly opposed by the Biden administration, is hardly surprising given the rapid expansion of the North Korean nuclear program. Any hopes that Pyongyang might give up or even freeze its nuclear stockpile were dashed by the failure of President Donald Trump’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 and 2019. Since then, the North has raced ahead with capabilities ranging from intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit the United States to tactical nuclear weapons that can saturate South Korea.
South Koreans are understandably worried and wonder if they can still count on the United States to defend them if, by doing so, it would put U.S. cities at risk of nuclear annihilation. Koreans are concerned that their country could meet the same fate as Ukraine — another nonnuclear state attacked by a nuclear-armed neighbor.
South Korean leaders have been discussing ways to strengthen “extended deterrence,” such as redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea (they were withdrawn in 1991); replicating the nuclear-sharing agreement the United States has with NATO allies (European aircraft can deliver U.S. nuclear warheads in wartime); or even developing a domestic nuclear weapons capability.
The U.S. position is that having nuclear weapons permanently stationed in South Korea — whether American or, potentially, South Korean — is dangerous and unnecessary, because the United States could always destroy North Korea with nuclear weapons fired by distant submarines, bombers and missiles. The administration has been trying to assuage Seoul’s concerns by promising greater consultation about the use of nuclear weapons and more frequent visits by U.S. nuclear-capable bombers and warships. This will undoubtedly be near the top of the agenda when Yoon comes to the White House for a summit on Wednesday.
A senior administration official told me that it “is very profoundly troubling for us” to hear South Koreans discuss the possibility of building their own nuclear weapons. “We stand by the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” this official told me. “We don’t want to see the spread of nuclear weapons. If they spread, they won’t just spread to countries in which we have confidence.”
The U.S. position is perfectly understandable. But it’s also easy to see why many Koreans are not reassured by U.S. security guarantees, given that Trump flirted with pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea if Seoul didn’t dramatically increase the amount of money it paid to subsidize them.
What if Trump or a Trump mini-me wins the presidency in 2024? Could South Korea count on an America First president to risk nuclear conflagration on behalf of a distant ally? The senior administration official told me that “our fundamental view is that U.S. extended deterrence commitments to the Republic of Korea are rock solid,” but, of course, the current administration cannot bind a successor.
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We need to think carefully about whether our anti-proliferation assumptions still hold in a world where nuclear threats are growing, U.S. military dominance is fading and domestic support for U.S. global leadership is declining. The best guide I have seen to the arguments for and against South Korean nuclear weapons is a forthcoming article in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Occasional Papers series by Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Einhorn, who served as the State Department’s senior adviser on non-proliferation during the Obama administration. (Einhorn provided me with an advance copy and walked me through his arguments.)
The article lists 10 reasons it could make sense for South Korea to go nuclear. These include the prospect that “it would strengthen deterrence against North Korea,” “force North Korea to deal with the Seoul government more seriously,” enhance South Korea’s “image as a strong, independent, successful player on the world stage” and reduce the risk of a North Korean nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland.
While some of these contentions are arguable, there is little disputing Einhorn’s assumption that “South Korea would be a responsible nuclear-armed state.” Moreover, South Korea has a right to withdraw from the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article X allows any signatory to leave if “extraordinary events … have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” The North Korean nuclear program certainly qualifies.
Having presented the “pro” case, Einhorn then goes on to list nine compelling arguments against South Korea building its own nukes. He argues that, with 28,500 U.S. military personnel based in South Korea and the two nations bound by a defense treaty, South Korea can trust the “extended deterrence” provided by “U.S. strategic assets” that are “off-shore and mostly out of sight.”
Other arguments against South Korea going nuclear include the possibility that doing so could weaken the U.S. alliance, with American politicians wondering: Why do we need to risk our own troops to defend a nuclear-armed ally? It could damage the global non-proliferation regime. And it could limit South Korea’s access to the imported uranium it needs to run its nuclear power industry, which generates 27 percent of the country’s electricity.
Einhorn’s conclusion: “Acquiring an indigenous nuclear weapons capability is not the answer to South Korean security concerns.” But some otherU.S. experts have reached a different conclusion. “It’s a real dilemma for responsible South Koreans,” Einhorn told me. “President Yoon and his advisers are clearly weighing all their options.”
For the moment, Yoon has made clear that he isn’t pursuing nuclear weapons capability and would prefer enhanced U.S. deterrence. But if, in the future, South Korea does decide to go nuclear, it should not be a game changer for the United States. The United States has long tolerated nuclear weapons owned by friendly states such as France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan and India, while opposing their acquisition by rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea. Having South Korea join the nuclear club wouldn’t change that.
Ultimately, it should be South Korea’s call. We should refrain from applying heavy-handed pressure and respect whatever decision our democratic ally makes. As Yoon and President Biden will affirm this week, both Washington and Seoul want the same thing: a secure and prosperous South Korea aligned with the West.