A realistic way to address the nuclear crisis

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A realistic way to address the nuclear crisis

Lee Chang-wee

The author is a professor of international law at the University of Seoul and president of the Korean headquarters of the International Law Association (ILA).

A barrage of missile launches by North Korea pushes security on the Korean Peninsula into the zero-visibility territory. It fired a ballistic missile to the south of the Northern Limit Line for the first time followed by the launch of an ICBM into the East Sea. If North Korea conducts its seventh nuclear test, South Korea, the United States and Japan will certainly impose tougher sanctions on it. But if China and Russia vetoes an even tougher UN resolution on the North, its provocations won’t stop. The U.S. faces the challenge of easing security concerns from South Korea and Japan and preventing nuclear proliferation.

America’s North Korea policy has repeatedly failed over the past three decades, as seen in the uninterrupted collapses of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework during the Clinton administration, the six-party talks in the Bush administration, the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration, and the “madman strategy” of the Trump administration.

Trump and Kim Jong-un agreed to denuclearization of the North at a summit in Singapore in 2018. But it led to nothing. Their second summit in Hanoi in 2019 was botched. As Joe Biden’s administration apparently has no effective card to play in the nuclear conundrum, we are increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of achieving a complete denuclearization of North Korea.

What should we do now? In theory, South Korea can choose among three options: its own nuclear armaments, redeployment of U.S. tactical nukes, and NATO-style nuclear sharing. But developing nuclear weapons on our own is only possible when U.S. restrictions on South Korea’s use of atomic energy and the constraints from the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) are lifted. Redeploying tactical weapons or sharing U.S. nukes is possible only when the ally agrees.

The United States deployed tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 to 1992, when the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation — also known as the basic agreement — was signed between the two Koreas. The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) had as many as 949 tactical nukes in 1967. It still possessed 150 at the time of the withdrawal of the nukes. Since the U.S. removed all nuclear packs, nuclear mines and nuclear shells from South Korea, it is difficult to redeploy them. The two governments also denied the possibility of redeploying tactical nukes in the South.

Nuclear-sharing refers to the provision of nuclear weapons management and maintenance to member countries of NATO. They can consult with the U.S. about related policies through the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) but Washington exercises final authority over the use of nuclear weapons. Currently, B-61 tactical nukes are deployed in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey. Using that system in Northeast Asia is not easy since no such multilateral alliance is established here. But if Seoul-Tokyo relations improve dramatically, that could change.

South Korea’s overreliance on U.S. extended deterrence for a long period of time seems to make the country reluctant to reinforce its own deterrence capability.

The remaining solution is South Korea’s own nuclear armaments. That depends on whether the South can convince the U.S. of the need for such armaments. The government must emphasize that while North Korea’s nuclear armaments are a hostile proliferation, South Korea’s own armaments constitute a friendly proliferation. If the U.S. allows its key ally nuclear armaments, South Korea can overcome opposition by the international community. Even if China and Russia insist on sanctions on South Korea in UN Security Council meetings, they cannot be implemented if the U.S. uses its veto.

Opponents of South Korea developing nuclear armaments point to the massive price the country would have to pay if it secedes from the NPT. But you must not forget that NPT is just an international agreement reached in the dynamics of international politics. As pointed out by Prof. Louis René Beres of Purdue University, a country can withdraw from — or terminate — international laws to ensure its survival. International law is not an accord for suicide. The NPT allows member countries to withdraw from it or suspend their compliance. If the government decides and persuades Uncle Sam, it could address such issues with NPT.

If we think peaceful coexistence is possible with a nuclear-armed North Korea, we can continue relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Otherwise, the government must find some realistic ways to address the crisis. The U.S. would not use nuclear weapons to defend its ally at the cost of a nuclear war.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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