The case for nuclear armament
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
As North Korea denuclearization has hit a snag, nearly 70 percent of the South Korean public want their country to have nuclear weapons. What about overseas perspective?
In the autumn of 2016, then U.S. President Barack Obama seriously considered declaring the principle of “No First Use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons. According to the policy, the United States will use nuclear weapons only to defend the country and its allies from nuclear attacks or only to retaliate nuclear attacks against them. Even if an enemy state attacks the United States or its allies — and if it used conventional weapons — the United States will not counter the attack with nuclear weapons, according to the principle.
Most of his foreign affairs and security aides tried to dissuade Obama. They said U.S. allies won’t trust U.S. nuclear umbrella under the NFU policy. In particular, then U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter argued that South Korea and Japan will develop their own nuclear programs. As oppositions grew, Obama gave up on the NFU policy.
That principle, after five years, was revived. President Joe Biden, who served as the vice president of the Obama administration, started pushing it again after he took office this year. The Nuclear Posture Review, scheduled to be issued next month, will likely include the NFU policy.
It is noteworthy that many experts in the United States are now expecting a nuclear-armed South Korea amid the current situation. According to a survey by the Foreign Affairs magazine, published on Dec. 12, seven out of 50 experts responded that Korea will likely be acquiring nuclear weapons in 10 years. Korea was ranked third after Iran and Japan.
Furthermore, some argued that the United States should encourage a nuclear-armed South Korea. In a joint contribution to the Washington Post in early October, Professors Jennifer Lind and Daryl G. Press of Dartmouth College, urged the United States to support the South’s acquiring of nuclear weapons in the context of China’s rise and the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear programs.
Why do many U.S. experts, including Carter, discuss a possibility of a nuclear-armed South Korea? It indicates that South Korea will end up acquiring nuclear weapons in response to the NFU policy amid the stalled denuclearization of North Korea. After the NFU policy is established, a U.S. pledge to offer nuclear umbrella to its allies will inevitably be shaken. Therefore, U.S. allies, including Britain, France, Japan and Australia fiercely lobbied to stop the NFU policy.
But there was no sign that the Moon Jae-in administration was part of the campaign, although threats to South Korea will actually be the greatest.
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, said South Korea is using 90 percent of its diplomatic energy to persuade the Biden administration although it is skeptical about the end of war declaration. Seoul, instead, must put efforts to reinforce nuclear deterrence, he said in a recent op-ed piece to the JoongAng Ilbo and the Korea JoongAng Daily.
Although experts overseas talk about a possibility of a nuclear-armed South Korea, it is regretful that there was no discussion domestically. The Moon administration, obsessed with inter-Korean exchanges, will unlikely bring up the issue first. But presidential candidates, who are promising to work for Korea’s future, must address this issue.
Korea is barred from acquiring nuclear weapons under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). But Article 10 of the NPT said, “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.” North Korea’s nuclear threats amount to an “extraordinary event,” according to experts.
There is an old saying — “The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind” — indicating that you neglect a greater danger to pursue a small gain. If the Biden administration declares the NFU policy, we will face a far greater danger. But the Moon administration does not care. It must stop being obsessed with a hopeless end-of-war declaration and try to come up with a substantial resolution, whether it means building nuclear weapons or allowing the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles.