How about a nuclear balance?
The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
During the Chuseok holidays, I watched “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part television documentary series directed by Ken Burns and aired in 2017. As I watch the series, I realized once again the importance of the self-help spirit “God helps those who help themselves.” No matter how others offer support, it was impossible to secure national security without a determination to defend one’s country on one’s own. I also realized that it is futile and extremely dangerous to rely on outside forces to protect national security. After seeing no possibility of winning the war, the United States signed a peace treaty — a de facto declaration of surrender — and withdrew from Vietnam, though South Vietnam was destined to fall.
Former President Park Chung Hee clearly witnessed that even a superpower would betray an ally at any time for its own sake. That was probably why his administration secretly pushed for a nuclear armament plan to accomplish self-defense without any reliance on outside forces. It was before North Korea started its nuclear development, and U.S. Forces Korea had hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons. Therefore, it could be deemed a reckless attempt destined to fail.
But the situation has changed. North Korea is a de facto nuclear power now with tens of nuclear weapons. The only thing we can rely on is the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But will it be there when we need it? U.S. President Donald Trump is treating allies as a liability rather than an asset. While trying to shift more of the cost burden to them, he is doing nothing to deter North Korea — no matter how often it fires missiles — by saying they are only short-range missiles.
If it becomes clear that the North has the ability to hit the U.S. mainland, it is hard to expect Uncle Sam to defend Seoul by giving up on stateside Los Angeles. What should a Korean leader do if he really worries about the country’s security?
What attracts our attention in such circumstances is a remark by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy. During a public lecture on Sept. 7, he mentioned the possibility of a nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan. He was quoting Henry Kissinger, who said that if efforts to denuclearize North Korea fail, we will be working on an Asia-wide nuclear proliferation change. But can we just see that as a warning to North Korea and China? Isn’t it the outcome of a reasonable inference that leaders of South Korea and Japan must have been considering the option of nuclear armaments?
Someone already predicted such a scenario. Charles Ferguson — head of the Federation of American Scientists and one of the best nuclear strategists in the United States — published a report in 2015 that South Korea would possibly develop nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear-armed North Korea.
In his report, Ferguson said it would only take six to eight months for South Korea to develop nuclear arms. He said the South will be able to produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to build 4,430 nuclear bombs — each as powerful as the one used in Hiroshima — by reprocessing the wasted fuel rods stored in the Wolsong plant.
He said South Korea can overcome the obstacle of the Non-proliferation Treaty by citing its Article 10, which allows the right to withdraw from the treaty if the signatory concludes that certain extraordinary events have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.
Referring to the case of India — where international sanctions were lifted a year after its nuclear test — he said nuclear weapons possession by a democratic country such as South Korea is different from the case of North Korea. He also said imposing economic sanctions on South Korea will be difficult, because barring trade with the world’s 10th largest economy will deal substantial losses to other countries. In other words, a nuclear-armed South Korea is possible as long as the United States tolerates it.
Trump wants to use nuclear negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a diplomatic accomplishment. However, there is a near-zero possibility that Kim will completely give up his cherished nuclear weapons. Though Trump is engaging in talks to boast of his diplomatic prowess, he will certainly change his mind if it becomes clear that a complete denuclearization of the recalcitrant state is impossible.
Military options are not a possibility, as they would cause unimaginable damage to all sides. Furthermore, it is impossible to strike all nuclear weapons and facilities hidden in North Korea.
The only option would be allowing South Korea and Japan to develop nuclear arms to neutralize North Korean nuclear weapons. During his presidential campaign, Trump hinted at the possibility by saying he was willing to allow South Korea and Japan nuclear armaments if that would lessen the burden on the United States.
If President Moon Jae-in is not a naïve leader who only believes in the good will of Kim Jong-un, he must prepare for a failure of denuclearization talks. His summit with Trump in New York next week should be the starting point. Moon must make clear that he wants progress in the nuclear talks but he also needs to prepare for a possible failure.
If it turns out that North Korea’s denuclearization is impossible, a nuclear-armed South Korea can be a way to realize peace on the Korean Peninsula as mutually assured destruction has been proven effective so far. When the nuclear balance of the two Koreas puts an end to military tensions and an arms race, it can expedite inter-Korean economic cooperation toward the goal of achieving what Moon called a “peace economy.” Decreased defense costs will also contribute to U.S. national interest.
We must start military, diplomatic, technical, legal and economic reviews of nuclear armaments on the condition that we will stop the program if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons. That is the way for us to not follow in the footsteps of South Vietnam. It is also a way to end our geopolitical vulnerability surrounded by superpowers. How much longer should we be dragged around by North Korea and other countries in the face of constant nuclear threats from across the border?
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 17, Page 31