Will South Korea develop its own nuclear weapons?

February 03, 2016 15:39
As Pyongyang continues to ratchet up tensions, a growing number of South Koreans want their nation to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Photo: AFP

North Korea stunned the world early last month by claiming that it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb.

While many western experts and observers believe that Pyongyang was only bluffing, the bold announcement however leaves the world in no doubt about Kim Jong-un's determination to press ahead with his brinkmanship and even "Mad Man's Diplomacy".

In face of the continued nuclear threat posed by the north, there have been calls in recent years among South Koreans for developing their own nuclear weapons. The idea gained more traction after Pyongyang's third nuclear test in 2013.

According to a survey conducted by civilian think-tank Asan Institute in 2013, as many as two-thirds of South Koreans were in favor of developing their own nuclear countermeasures, and only less than half had confidence in the so-called "nuclear umbrella" provided by the US.

The main arguments for developing South Korea's own nuclear weapons are as follows:

1. The success of North Korea’s nuclear program suggests that the so-called "six-party" talks have completely failed to check Pyongyang's aggression. Besides, the Stalinist state has warned that it might launch pre-emptive strikes against the South if the need arises. Hence, Seoul is completely justified in developing its own nuclear weapons, people argue.

2. Although Washington has an obligation, under a Mutual Defense Treaty, to defend South Korea in case of an invasion from the North, the US has in the past two decades withdrawn basically all of its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. That makes it imperative for Seoul to develop its own deterrent.

3. Surrounded by nuclear powers such as Russia, China and North Korea, and given Japan’s potential for becoming the next nuclear power in East Asia, South Korea has to have its own nuclear deterrent in order to make sure it can always negotiate with its neighbors from a position of strength.

However, there are still a considerable number of influential figures in South Korea who are against the idea of development of nuclear weapons. Among them is Moon Chung-in, a professor with the Yonsei University and a former foreign policy advisor to the South Korean government.

Moon's arguments are as follows:

1. If South Korea develops and deploys its own nuclear weapons on its soil, it might cause the US troops stationed along the 38th parallel to have second thoughts about intervening directly and immediately in case of an armed clash between the North and the South. It is because Washington might not want to risk getting involved in a military conflict that may escalate into a full-scale nuclear war. In other words, the deployment of nuclear weapons may backfire and put South Korea in an even more dangerous position.

2. A fully operational nuclear deterrence capability is a lot more than just rolling out nuclear bombs from the factory, as it requires a lot of supporting facilities and an entire framework of strategic and military planning to enable the bombs to produce real deterrent effect. In this aspect, South Korea has basically zero experience. Besides, US nuclear capabilities that have global reach are enough to deter North Korea.

3. The US and even China are unlikely to support any attempt by South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons, because it may trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, and Japan will then have the perfect excuse it has waited for so long to build its own weapons, thereby endangering China's national security and undermining Washington's influence on Tokyo. Moreover, nuclear proliferation in East Asia is against the basic interests of US, Russia and China, and they will definitely not sit on the sidelines watching South Korea build nuclear bombs.

4. Since South Korea is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, developing its own nuclear weapons will definitely put it under fire from the UN and other major powers, thereby undermining international sympathy for Seoul. Besides, any attempt by South Korea to develop its own nukes may prompt North Korea to build more.

In the foreseeable future, I believe South Korean President Park Geun-hye will continue to observe the non-proliferation treaty unless Kim Jong-un’s brinkmanship spins out of control. If that worst-case scenario comes about, it is not totally impossible that South Korea may press ahead with its own nuclear weapons program regardless of international pressure, just like what Israel did in the 70s.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 2.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal