Being a “shrimp among whales” – perhaps the favorite moniker security analysts use to describe South Korea’s position in NE Asia – can’t be easy. The NE Asia neighborhood has two local toughs with strategic and tactical nuclear weapons capabilities (China and Russia), a graying neighbor with the capability to build a nuclear weapons arsenal in weeks (Japan), and a local bully with a few nuclear weapons, and the deep desire to have more of higher quality (North Korea). If you live in South Korea, with its history of troubles regarding all of these states, it may seem only natural to beef up the military and get a nuclear weapons arsenal fast.
It doesn’t take an expert to understand it’s been a hard twelve months here on the peninsula. First, the Navy corvette Cheonon was sunk by a North Korean torpedo (North Korea still denies involvement). Then, North Korea announced to the world via Siegfried S. Hecker that they have a uranium enrichment facility that is much more sophisticated than anyone previously believed possible. Lastly, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea, killing two marines and two civilians and wounding sixteen more in the process. Add to this the fact that North Korea is currently in a leadership transition from father, Kim Jong-il, to youngest son, Kim Jong-un, which may make the northern regime less stable than usual, and one has a potent mix for believing a nuclear arsenal may provide better security for the South.
Earlier this year, Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dae-joong wrote that “denuclearization is possible on the Korean Peninsula only when both Korea’s have nuclear arms, exercise mutual restraint and conduct nuclear disarmament talks.”Six weeks later, former Grand National Party (GNP) chairman Chung Mon-joong passed out leaflets on the floor of the National Assembly claiming two of three South Koreans believe the South should acquire nuclear weapons in response to the North Korean nuclear threat. With all due respect to these two gentlemen, adding one more nuclear state to the neighborhood is not going to bring security, but it does have the potential to make things a lot worse.
If South Korea gets its own nuclear arsenal, which is more likely: Will North Korea negotiate away what it deems to be its best deterrent of an invasion by the South? Or, will it feel the need to make more weapons faster because one more threatening nuclear power has arrived in the neighborhood?
It is highly likely North Korea will try to build more weapons more quickly, leading to a nuclear arms race on the peninsula that neither side can afford, making the region much more dangerous in the process. After all, if both nations had nuclear weapons with which to negotiate disarmament, as Mr. Kim believes possible, North Korea would simply be back to square one – South Korea would have the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and North Korea would have no nuclear protection. This hardly seems like a position the North will suddenly find acceptable.
Besides the strategic temptation to begin a nuclear weapons program, South Korea must also face the political temptation to do so. After the Cheonon and Yeonpyeong, people here are beginning to wonder whether the U.S. will prove a reliable ally once again should war break out on the peninsula. Hence, survey numbers showing a majority of people here think a local nuclear deterrent is a good idea. For this reason, politicians may find it easy to promote a nuclear weapons program. In fact, the idea may be entering mainstream political discourse, but influential politicos should tread carefully.
Right now, South Korea-U.S. relations are the strongest they’ve been in more than a decade. Causing new tension between the two is politically short-sighted at best. President Lee and President Obama seem to agree on how best to deal with North Korea. In addition, the United States has always provided extended deterrence to the South through its nuclear umbrella, and this is not going to change. The U.S. may not be willing to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons here on the peninsula, but this is in keeping with its nuclear-free peninsula policy, and should not in anyway be seen as the U.S. shirking its alliance responsibilities. South Korea has been one of the U.S.’s closest allies for the past sixty years, if the U.S. isn’t willing to help them in a time of war, then U.S. credibility around the globe will be more negatively impacted than if George W. Bush had served four terms as U.S. president.
It seems to me that South Korea sits in an enviable position right now, with a very close and powerful alliance partner that is not going to allow North Korean forces to overrun the peninsula. Moreover, the security alliance with the U.S. is allowing South Korea to gradually take on more regional and international responsibilities raising its international profile in very positive ways (humanitarian and security military contingents in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-piracy activities near Somalia are the highlights of many more cooperative activities undertaken by the South). It would be very easy for Seoul to overplay its hand when it comes to security planning and begin a nuclear weapons program. However, this is the perfect time for Seoul to play the superior moral agent in NE Asia and continue to exercise patience concerning provocative North Korean actions, knowing full well that the U.S. has its back if things head south (literally or figuratively)
South Korea is the only strong nation in the region that can take a stand against nuclear weapons on moral and ethical grounds, being that it is currently the only state without the ability to produce or launch them quickly. NE Asia could use a pacifying moral agent working for a nuclear free peninsula and region. A smaller power like Korea adhering to such a moral position can send a valuable message of non-proliferation to the global community. Couple this with the fact that the Korean peninsula is so small that the use of nuclear weapons here could be devastating in ways yet contemplated, and you have a great case for arguing against a nuclear weapons program in the South.
Making a moral argument against enhancing local weapons capabilities is always tricky in questions of security, but when it comes to questions of nuclear security they can and should be made. If South Korea forgoes the short-term desire for nuclear weapons in troubling times and continues regional and global initiatives of peaceful security and democratization, it will find it has many friends should North Korea attack, just as it had sixty years ago. “To be or not to be a nuclear power” is the question. I hope Seoul and South Koreans show faith in their friends, their allies, and in their superior moral agency, and they choose ‘not to be’ a nuclear military power. South Korea and NE Asia will be better off if they do.
Sean O’Malley holds a PhD in International Area Studies. He is an associate professor in the Department of International Studies at Dongseo University. His latest piece “Can Military Normalization in Japan and Opcon Transfer in South Korea Enhance Regional Stability? A Conflict Management Framework for Rivalry Dyads” in the forthcoming edition of The Korean Journal of International Studies will be available soon at www.kjis.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..