[Column] Sitting on our hands over nuclear armaments

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[Column] Sitting on our hands over nuclear armaments

Wi Sung-lac
The author is a former South Korean representative to the six-party talks and head of the diplomacy and security division of the JoongAng Ilbo’s Reset Korea campaign.

After the results of a survey showed more than 75 percent of South Koreans support the country’s own nuclear armaments, an increasing number of opinion leaders are raising their voices to justify the idea — a distinctive trend after the conservative government started last year.

Nuclear armaments are certainly an issue powerful enough to determine the fate of a country. But strangely, most Koreans turn a blind eye to the obvious ramifications of nuclear armaments even when they’re gaining traction in the country. That’s a very worrisome development. If we leave the issue unattended, we may see a candidate pledging to develop nuclear weapons on our own in the next presidential election. It is the time to check the balance sheet of nuclear armaments before it’s too late.

First of all, we must ask if such a lopsided public opinion is really a result of heated public debate on the volatile issue. Given a lack of sufficient discussions on the international implications of our own nuclear armaments — and on the high price the country must pay in return for developing nuclear weapons — the overwhelming support for nuclear armaments certainly reflects people’s antipathy toward the nuclear threats from North Korea and their frustration at our inability to solve the nuclear conundrum on our own.

Let’s face it. Nuclear armaments mean taking an extreme option beyond international norms to deal with the nuclear threats, even if South Korea may look like the recalcitrant state across the border. In that case, we must stand up to the United States, China, Russia, Japan and other major countries. It will cause massive damage to the Korea-U.S. alliance and trigger full-fledged international pressure. If we turn our back on both sides, our security and economy will be extremely weakened. If so, people’s sentimental support for our own nuclear armaments will disappear and public opinion will be divided. Due to our vulnerability to international sanctions, the nuclear armaments will have irrevocable impact on the country.

To help avoid such catastrophe, some people champion nuclear armaments in a revisionist frame. They insist on raising our potential to quickly develop nuclear weapons after acquiring the right to enrich and reprocess nuclear materials first. That’s unrealistic, too. In that case, South Korea will have more trouble getting the rights for enrichment and reprocessing, which is only possible under the condition of peaceful use of nuclear energy. Japan obtained the rights after getting trust from the world. We once tried to extract nuclear materials and develop nuclear weapons. If we enrich and reprocess uranium again, no one will endorse it. Technically, Korea already has the potential to produce nuclear weapons. Upholding the principle of nonproliferation — and keeping quiet — can help Korea reinforce its nuclear potential and get the rights for the enrichment and reprocessing.

Under such circumstances, our best option is to ensure — and consolidate — the U.S. extended deterrence through a meticulous collaboration. Some opponents believe that our card of developing nuclear weapons on our own can convince Washington to make additional promises to safeguard its ally from the North Korean nuclear threat.

But this approach does more harm than good, as it gives the impression that a country quite close to G7 level uses the brinkmanship strategy, the trademark of North Korea. Basically, a strengthening of the extended deterrence is aimed at encouraging the U.S. to launch a nuclear attack on North Korea, but would America sacrifice itself at a tipping point if its ally pressures the U.S. with its own nuclear armament card? As South Korea-U.S. consultations to reinforce the extended deterrence have just stated, our government must concentrate on negotiations after presenting rational alternatives. This is not the time to mess it up and undermine the trust.

Given the emotional public reaction to nuclear armaments and their enormous repercussions, it is not desirable for the government, political circles and security experts to sit on their hands over the increasing support for nuclear armaments. The time has come to let the public know all the loopholes in our nuclear armaments and come up with the best-possible alternatives beyond the boundaries of the conservative or liberal.
Interestingly, progressive groups in Korea do not show strong opposition to nuclear armaments despite their crusade for a world without nuclear weapons. They could be conscious of the compulsive support for nuclear armaments in the polls. But the peace-loving tribe must aggressively tackle the issue for the future of the country.

The overwhelming support for nuclear armaments owes much to the vulnerable habitat for discussions on diplomacy and security. If the habitat had been rich, problems with the armaments must have surfaced earlier.

But it is not too late. Our society must demonstrate its ability to deal with an overly emotional approach that may lead to an extreme security policy. Only then can South Korea enhance trust from the rest of the world and have a stronger say in negotiations with Uncle Sam to augment its extended deterrence.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)