Nuclear-armed Korea and Japan solution for peace
Lee says peace on the Korean Peninsula and the security order of Northeast Asia could be reached if a nuclear balance between an alliance of South Korea, the United States and Japan and of North Korea, China and Russia by South Korea and Japan’s nuclear armaments is achieved. Since U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun mentioned early last month the possibility of a nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan during a public lecture at the University of Michigan, Lee’s perspective is receiving more attention.
The JoongAng Sunday recently sat down with Lee for an interview. Below are edited excerpts.
Q. Why do you think Biegun mentioned the possibility of a nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan?
A. I guess he mentioned it in the hopes of a breakthrough on negotiations with North Korea. In fact, a few political scientists including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer and Kenneth Waltz have been predicting that South Korea and Japan will have no option but to consider nuclear armament unless the North gives up its nuclear weapons.
If South Korea and Japan consider nuclear armament in practice, how do you think U.S. President Donald Trump would react?
I don’t think Trump has a distinctive philosophy on the nuclear issue. He, in principle, opposes nuclear proliferation, but that is always changeable. Though Trump is showing a different attitude since he became the U.S. president, he, during his presidential campaign, 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. In fact, of the four countries that became nuclear-armed countries outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) - Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea - all except the North achieved the nuclear state status with the cooperation of the United States. If [we] emphasize the fact that South Korea and Japan’s nuclear development will be hospitable nuclear proliferation just like that of Pakistan, India and Israel and that it would also lessen the [financial] burden of the U.S. national defense budget, Trump might respond positively.
Don’t you think the public consensus on nuclear armament will be difficult?
Actually, the majority of South Koreans agree on nuclear armament. It is because they think the complete denuclearization of North Korea is impossible as nuclear negotiations with the North have been failing for the last 25 years. For nuclear armament, it is necessary to make it public through general elections or presidential elections. In India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee from the Bharatiya Janata Party made a pledge on nuclear armament during his first campaign for prime minister. In 1998 when he was reelected as prime minister, he eventually completed the country’s nuclear armament process.
For nuclear armament, South Korea needs to withdraw from the NPT. Do you think it is possible?
Article 10 of the NPT specifies “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” Under this article, [we] can declare a withdrawal from the NPT based on the assumption that South Korea will stop nuclear development if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.
For nuclear armament, South Korea also needs to have permission from the United States on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, which the U.S.-South Korea Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement prohibits. Do you think the United States would agree with the revision of the nuclear cooperation agreement?
Approval from the United States is the major prerequisite for nuclear armament. If the United States decides to allow South Korea’s nuclear development, a revision of the nuclear cooperation agreement will obviously be made.
During the Cold War, the United States thought that Japan’s nuclear armament might be necessary to attempt to contain China and the Soviet Union, so it allowed Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. With only its existing amount of plutonium, Japan is able to make thousands of nuclear weapons. Of all countries directly involved in the six-party talks - South Korea, North Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan - all but the South either already has nuclear weapons or they can easily make ones in a short time. South Korea is the only country which is not developing nuclear weapons due to regulations [from the United States].
Are there any technical problems regarding South Korea’s nuclear armament?
No, none at all. South Korea has the world’s best nuclear energy technology. We will only take about six months, at the longest, to make nuclear weapons even without any nuclear tests in the process.
Do you think it is possible for South Korea to become a nuclear-armed country before Japan?
If the United States allows nuclear development, it would allow Japan first. Unless Japan becomes a nuclear-armed country, it seems unlikely for South Korea.
Do you think that’s possible in spite of Japan’s deep-rooted anti-nuclear sentiment?
It won’t be easy but it is possible. For Japan, it will be hard to accept Northeast Asia’s security order being dependent on China because it doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Under such circumstances, it is likely that the Japanese consensus on nuclear armament will be made anyway.
Don’t you think that South Korea would suffer from such pressure and sanctions from the international community if we start nuclear development?
South Korea has the 10th-largest economy in the world. It would be impossible for the international community to apply economic sanctions against us. But since South Korea’s nuclear development would happen with U.S. permission, it wouldn’t be a big problem for the international community.
How can South Korea deal with China’s opposition?
National security is more important than the economy. This is why South Korea has to choose the United States over China. Regarding China’s opposition, there is no other way but to act jointly with the United States. Nuclear armament and overcoming China’s opposition will not be possible unless we stand by the United States and Japan’s side. This is why the termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) between Tokyo, which can be considered as a symbol of the partnership among South Korea, the United States and Japan, is a mistake.
Are there any alternatives if nuclear armament is not possible in practice?
The alternatives are either the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons or NATO’s way of nuclear weapons-sharing. There was a time in the past, when over 900 tactical nuclear weapons were deployed to South Korea, so it is highly probable that the United States would agree to the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons. If NATO’s way is employed, South Korea and Japan would borrow tactical nuclear weapons placed in Guam, a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, on a long-term basis. If that were to happen, South Korea, the United States and Japan would organize a nuclear planning group; share information on nuclear weapons and strategies to manage and use those; and carry out combined military exercises altogether. However, the United States will have the power to make the final decision.
Of the two alternatives, redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons or NATO’s way of sharing, which is more effective for nuclear deterrence against North Korea?
I guess the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is more effective. North Korea will be under a lot more pressure from nuclear weapons near the military demarcation line than those in Guam.
Don’t you think that the risk of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula will be increased if all the surrounding countries including South and North Korea are able to have nuclear weapons?
It is the opposite. If South Korea and Japan are able to have nuclear weapons or redeploy tactical nuclear weapons, the peace and security order can be made on the Korean Peninsula and even in Northeast Asia.
Assuming that both South and North Korea have nuclear weapons, do you think Korean reunification would still be possible?
The reunification of Germany happened since a nuclear balance was established among the United States, Russia, Britain and France. In the situation that the nuclear balance is made among the six-party countries, unification of the Korean Peninsula will be a lot easier if both South and North Korea give up their nuclear weapons. Now, in a situation where only the North has nuclear weapons, unification is not possible. If a nuclear balance is established between the South and North, the so-called peace economy, which the Moon Jae-in administration desires, will make progress.
BY BAE MYUNG-BOK, CHEA SARAH [firstname.lastname@example.org]