10.11.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Nuclear Weapons in South Korea under Discussion

3452342342342In October 2016, the Presidential Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Unification of Korea suggested to the President of the Republic of Korea returning US tactical nuclear weapons to the country. The report entitled “The policy of promotion of the second plan on Korean reunification” states that the search for opportunities to place US tactical nuclear weapons in the Republic of Korea and the permanent basing of American strategic forces may serve as a pressure tool both on the DPRK, and on China to toughen sanctions in respect of Pyongyang. The placement of US tactical nuclear weapons in the Republic of Korea is justified in the report by the following example – SS-series ballistic missiles were placed in the territory of the former USSR that were targeted on Europe, in response to this, the USA placed Pershing II – the American medium-range ballistic missiles of mobile basing – in Europe.

Earlier, on September 12, 2016, 31 representatives of the Saenuri governing party signed a statement, which proposed that the Parliament discuss launching an independent South Korean nuclear program. The same former leader of the parliamentary group Won Yoo-chul, who is one of the major proponents of the idea to publicly discuss the issue of nuclear weapons in the South, has announced that the Republic of Korea should consider any protection measures from the provocative acts of the North, including nuclear weapons for the purposes of self-defense. Won Yoo-chul believes that American strategic nuclear weapons should be placed in the South in the short-term in order to achieve nuclear balance with the North. However, in the long-term, the South should create its own nuclear potential exceeding that of North Korea at least two times.

According to Chung Mong-joon, member of South Korea’s Parliament, as the Rubicon in terms of the peninsula denuclearization has been crossed, the Republic of Korea needs the nuclear weapons. The statement also emphasizes the fact that this is not an opinion of just a few members of Parliament. The day before, on September 11, the leader of the Saenuri governing party Lee Jung-hyun announced to journalists that the adoption of strict measures was required. He said that “in the current situation this is the topic of discussion to focus on; yet it is the issue that has been always avoided.”

It goes without saying that the opposition called such a proposal unrealistic and potentially leading to increased conflict. The speaker of the Democratic Party of Korea Yoon Kwang-suk has called the proposal unspeakable. The Republic of Korea government also opposes the placement of the nuclear weapons in the country as it contradicts the denuclearization principle on the Korean peninsula.

Meanwhile, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, one of the three leading conservative publications, surveyed 16 experts on security and international relations. They are divided into three groups: nine of them support denuclearization, four of them approve of the idea of obtaining the nuclear weapons for the purposes of self-defense or the placement of US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, and the remaining three experts propose using nuclear weapons against the North. Moreover, this division clearly correlates with their liberal or conservative outlook. 

Academics have noted that the South Korean bomb will go against the non-proliferation system, which may lead to a split in the international community. The Republic of Korea will have to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which will result in international sanctions and the termination of the Cooperation Agreement with the USA on nuclear power engineering. Thus, Seoul will lose access to enriched uranium, which will lead to disruption in the energy sector.

In addition, it will send the wrong signal to the DPRK that nuclear weapons might be accepted by the international community. The nuclear armament of Seoul will mean a recognition of Pyongyang’s nuclear status and it will completely bury the prospects for the peninsula’s denuclearization.

That is why some experts have proposed relying on the US nuclear “umbrella”, stating that Washington is unlikely to allow Seoul to obtain its own nuclear weapons, and any countermeasures may affect the country’s economic situation. Another position suggests using the nuclear program as part of a bargaining strategy in order to reach the “zero option” and to eliminate nuclear weapons in both the North and the South.

Those who support the proposal of the Saenuri Deputies consider the independent nuclear program to be a well-minded response. The USA withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula in 1991, and the majority of its nuclear torpedoes and mines were destroyed. It will be difficult to place American tactical nuclear weapons again. Moreover, “we should not entrust the destiny of our nation in foreign hands.” Is there any guarantee that the USA will join the nuclear war for our sake in the changing international environment?

What is the public opinion on this issue? An opinion poll conducted by the Gallup Korea agency among 1,010 people showed that 58% of the respondents supported the idea of South Korea obtaining its own nuclear weapons. 34% of the respondents spoke out against it: most of them young people. The remaining 7% refused to answer or said they could not give a definite answer.

Relying on the containment model that currently exists between India and Pakistan, supporters of the Seoul bomb suppose that the current technological level will mean a bomb can be made in 8-12 months. However, according to a statement made by an official of the US National Security Council Jon Wolfsthal on September 21, 2016, neither the independent program nor the placement of the US tactical nuclear weapons would boost the security of the Republic of Korea. The USA is able to attack its enemies from any part of the world, and all its potential opponents are aware of this. Therefore, he does not believe that these actions will play an additional role in dissuading the DPRK from turning to a military solution. Neither the USA nor the Republic of Korea is interested in the South Korean nuclear program.

In the author’s opinion, the entire fact of bringing this issue for the public discussion is indicative, as South Korean nuclear weapons would truly cause great harm to the non-proliferation system.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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