Korea’s nuclear option
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Sept. 19 marks a year since President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un announced a joint declaration in Pyongyang. They declared a permanent removal of war threats and an end to the hostile relationship to pave the way for lasting peace and prosperity. Yet none of the grand promises have been achieved. Only three months are left until the year-end deadline Kim set for a breakthrough in denuclearization talks with the United States. It is time for Seoul to think about its Plan B if the denuclearization of North Korea fails in the near future.
Coincidentally, there has been a sudden talk of the possibility of nuclear armaments by South Korea and Japan. On Sept. 6, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun speculated that voices could be raised in Seoul and Tokyo to bolster their nuclear capabilities if North Korean denuclearization fails. On the same day, the U.S. Congressional Research Service issued a report pointing out that U.S. allies — namely, South Korea and Japan — may feel compelled to acquire their own nuclear weapons if they were not confident in the reliability and credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Washington may be studying the plausibility of a nuclear buildup in its two allies if it cannot contain Pyongyang’s weapons program.
There has been strong belief that Washington would never tolerate South Korea’s nuclear armament. Some even speculated that former president Park Chung Hee was assassinated because the strongman ordered nuclear weapons development. But more American strategists are suggesting that Seoul and Tokyo’s nuclear armament would aid U.S. security. U.S. President Donald Trump is also for the idea. During his campaign in 2016, he said it would help the United States if Japan had nuclear weapons as long as there was a North Korean nuclear threat.
Reality often pans out more dramatically than fiction. Nobody would have visualized a U.S. president standing next to a North Korean leader at Panmunjom. If so, South Korea arming itself with nuclear weapons also may not be a bizarre idea. There are some upsides to the suggestion. Going nuclear would be the most effective deterrence. History has ample examples of peace through strength. We must not be so naïve to believe that North Korea seriously wishes peace.
Nuclear weapons also cost less. It would cost about 1 trillion won ($840 million) to develop a nuclear weapon — and less to maintain it. The United States collected over 1 trillion won from South Korea this year alone to operate its troops here. Washington now demands more than 5 trillion won annually. South Korea purchased about 7.6 trillion won worth of weapons from the United States over the last 10 years. That much spending would be unnecessary if we had our own nuclear weapons.
Most of all, the U.S. promise of a nuclear umbrella cannot be entirely relied on. We believe that Uncle Sam would come to our rescue with its nuclear weapons when we come under any threat. That is dangerously wishful thinking. When the United States and European nations drew up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pact in 1949, there was a provision stipulating that “an attack against one Ally is considered an attack against all Allies.” The U.S. Congress strongly protested the concept of automatic engagement in foreign wars.
The South Korea-U.S. mutual defense treaty signed in 1953 stated that each nation should act according to their constitutional procedures when one comes under attack. If South Korea comes under military attack, the U.S. can cite legislative opposition for delaying or refusing participation in a war. Moreover, U.S. aid under Trump can hardly be relied on as he blames his allies for behaving badly as “free riders” who rely on the United States for security yet refuse to pay.
Critics warned that South Korea could face international sanctions if it leaves the non-proliferation treaty. But if the move has the backing of the United States, that could be avoidable. There are also worries that Seoul can no longer demand Pyongyang to go nuclear-free if it also builds up nuclear weapons. That sounds reasonable. But Pyongyang will never willingly dismantle its nuclear capabilities.
South Korea’s nuclear armament can actually accelerate the removal of nuclear weapons in the North. The Moon Jae-in administration, which envisions a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and peace process, will never agree to that idea, but academia and media must seriously raise the issue.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 17, Page 30