The nuclear divideNorth Korea’s fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9 was, with no doubt, a godsend for President Park Geun-hye, who has been struggling over the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, in South Korea. South Korea and the United States are about to complete the jewel in the crown of their missile defense system against the nuclear-armed missiles being developed in North Korea: a vision of North Korean ballistic missiles being destroyed in flight by Thaad.
On July 8, South Korea and the United States declared that they have decided to deploy Thaad in the South, despite numerous unanswered questions about technological maturity and, above all, strong protests from China, which views it as a serious threat to its own security. A few intellectuals and activists on the left convincingly complained but the mainstream took comfort from the strengthening military collaboration of the allies. Needless to say, the colossal decision, which eventually distanced Seoul from Beijing, represents a significant achievement for the Seoul-Washington allies.
When President Park entered office more than three years ago, she inherited a mission to settle the return of wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military to Seoul, which was delayed to December 2015 in the wake of a successful negotiation in June 2010 between Presidents Obama and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. On October 23, 2014, Seoul and Washington both agreed to delay again the return of OPCON until South Korean forces are better prepared to deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
By extension, the Thaad system, designed to identify and destroy long-range missiles potentially armed with nuclear warheads fired from North Korea, might have been put on the negotiating table as an alternative architecture in an effort to defend American bases in South Korea in a more effective manner. If any U.S. military camp is attacked, the United States may well be compelled to respond with its own escalation against the Communist regime.
In a similar vein, the Obama administration might have urged its ally to adopt the missile defense system to meet America’s pivot to Asia, either because a conflict that began on the limited issue of North Korea’s nuclear program would be expanded to a serious crisis or a low-intensity war which would shape the behavior of the involved states, or because China could be expected to move on a number of issues that it is currently deterred from taking, such as the resumption of military cooperation with North Korea. After all, South Korea and the United States successfully turned that possible promise into reality by declaring that the alerting system would become an integral part of their collective defense efforts.
On cue, North Korea fired, on Aug. 25, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) off its east coast and into Japanese waters. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claimed that the United States was now within striking range of his missiles.
Some doubted that the reclusive regime would take a few more years to successfully launch the SLBM, from below the waves from submarines possibly patrolling around the Korean peninsula and beyond. Civilian analysts wondered how the economically devastated country could pour its extremely limited resources into acquiring such potentially destructive technology. U.S. defense planners in the know feared the SLBM, together with the Rodong, could be programmed for nuclear warheads.
Still, the public appears divided. Some hawkish politicians and journalists, who have made no secret of their penchant for nuclear weapons, point out that North Korea’s nuclear weaponry makes South Korea’s internal balancing more shaky. In particular, these nuclear mythmakers seem not to rule out the possibility of acquiring nuclear bombs if the American missile defense system, which remains potential flashpoints between South Korea and China, is either not available or insufficient to provide security for the South. Much concern about national insecurity, policy elites and the scientific establishment might be slowly moving toward the development of a nuclear weapons program unless South Korea finds succor in keeping national security with conventional weapons against North Korea.
From the perspective of those who view South Korea’s nuclear capability through the lens of economic and technological feasibilities, it is a matter of time before the Seoul government takes a political and strategic decision. Assuming North Korea continues provoking nuclear threats, opinions favoring South Korea’s nuclear weapons, fluctuating between 52 and 68 percent, would become a mainstream belief.
All in all, North Korea’s “Pakistanization,” which aims to possess more than 100 nuclear weapons, would be a turning point in the long march of the U.S.-led nuclear nonproliferation. If the Obama administration wants to ensure that North Korea should not be the primary beneficiary of the nuclear-free world, it should provide its ally with a more specific and realistic option to ease some of South Korea’s security concerns.
Many pundits in South Korea have posed a necessary question: Why should South Korean foreign policy be held hostage to North Korean nukes?
So far, one widespread answer has been that South Korea is not allowed to develop its own nuclear weapons program. All South Korean presidents, since the late president Park Chung Hee who clandestinely sought nuclear weapons in the mid-1970s at the peak of his power, have taken up the argument, apparently following the nonproliferation mandate made by the United States in the name of a “nuclear umbrella.”
But it’s become a common complaint that the Seoul government is sticking to the ineffective, torn umbrella, instead of actually fixing the long-decades nuclear troubles. Given the concept of reliance on defense has already become a self-deception in a nuclear war, and North Korea has a strong desire to up the ante by demonstrating nuclear prowess and challenging international norms against testing, it’s very clear that flying the Thaad flag alone cannot make much of a dent in the intractable North Korea’s national security.
The time for Seoul and Washington to show that they take the issue of Pyongyang’s reckless nuclear proliferation seriously is now, although it may give North Korean hardliners another excuse to strengthen their military ties with China, or even Russia.
*The author, director with the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, was formerly on the foreign and national security policy planning staff at the Presidential Office of South Korea. He also worked as the special adviser to the National Assembly speaker for unification affairs.