Questions about 'ironclad' commitment lead to impossible nuke solution

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Questions about 'ironclad' commitment lead to impossible nuke solution

In light of North Korea's escalating military threats, South Korea and the United States agreed last year to increase the rotation of U.S. strategic assets deployed to the Korean Peninsula, such as the two B-1B supersonic bombers at the top of the formation in this photo. [REPUBLIC OF KOREA AIR FORCE]

In light of North Korea's escalating military threats, South Korea and the United States agreed last year to increase the rotation of U.S. strategic assets deployed to the Korean Peninsula, such as the two B-1B supersonic bombers at the top of the formation in this photo. [REPUBLIC OF KOREA AIR FORCE]

Alliance at year 70: Second in a four-part series  
In light of the shifting geopolitical situation and growing risk factors in the region, the alliance between South Korea and the United States has transformed and evolved over the past 70 years. The Korea-U.S. alliance now stands at a crossroads as it marks its 70th anniversary and the relationship advances into a more global and comprehensive partnership. In a four-part series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will examine the various challenges faced by the allies in terms of diplomatic, security, economic and people-to-people cooperation and discuss possible ways forward. – Ed.   
South Korean politicians have made headlines in recent months by calling for an independent nuclear deterrent in a shift that experts say is driven by questions about the reliability of Washington's “ironclad” commitment to defend Seoul.
These politicians include President Yoon Suk Yeol and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who have publicly mused in recent months about the need for South Korea to bolster its security by means of developing an independent nuclear deterrent or persuading the United States to re-deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula that were withdrawn in 1991.
According to Goh Myong-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute’s Center for Foreign Policy and National Security, these calls reflect Seoul’s perception that the U.S. pledge to use all military capabilities, including nuclear, to deter a nuclear attack on South Korea — commonly known as the extended deterrence commitment — needs to adapt to advances in the nuclear threat emanating specifically from Pyongyang.
“Although the Korean Peninsula has always been a potential conflict flashpoint, the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea has not led to the adaptations in U.S. defensive strategy,” Goh said, noting that the U.S. nuclear weapons strategy remains “somewhat stuck in a Cold War-era framework that focuses on with other superpowers, and fails to consider secondary nuclear-armed actors.”
This concern was also voiced by Rep. Thae Yong-ho, a South Korean conservative lawmaker who formerly served as Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to London before defecting, who warned in a March 31 interview with KBS Radio that the allies were at risk of underestimating the North’s advancing nuclear capabilities, pointing to a North Korean state media report in March revealing the existence of a new line of tactical nuclear warheads.
“The North Korean regime is not the kind of system where propagandists can ask leader Kim Jong-un and senior officials to play pretend as they examine fake weapons,” Thae said.
Thae added that a seventh nuclear test by the regime should make the South seriously consider developing nuclear weapons to “assure its own security.”
To signal its commitment to defending Seoul, Washington has upped the frequency of U.S. strategic assets on rotation around the peninsula, especially as the North conducted a record 95 missile launches last year and announced the frontline deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and a new preemptive nuclear strike doctrine in April and September.
Seoul’s lack of say in how nuclear weapons would be used

But the United States has thus far ruled out re-deploying tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula or setting up a nuclear sharing framework with South Korea similar to the one in place in some NATO states, such as Germany and Turkey, which participate in storing and planning the use of U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of their own deterrent.
U.S. President Joe Biden in January shot down suggestions by Yoon that the two countries are planning joint nuclear weapons exercises, leaving South Korea without a codified say in the key question of how U.S. nuclear weapons could be employed in its defense.
It remains to be seen if decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons in a potential inter-Korean conflict will stay entirely in the hands of Washington.
According to a South Korean government official who spoke on condition of anonymity to the JoongAng Ilbo on March 27, “joint planning on how the U.S. extended deterrence and the nuclear umbrella will be maintained in potential scenarios involving an armed conflict” is on the agenda of Yoon’s summit with Biden later this month.
South Koreans worry about future U.S. administrations

But the current lack of a voice in how U.S. nuclear weapons will be deployed in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula is not the only cause for South Korean concern regarding the alliance.
Concerns about how a future change of administration in Washington could affect U.S. extended deterrence are also not far from the minds of Seoul’s decision-makers, John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University, says.
“South Korea's calls for nuclear weapons constitute a delayed response to the destabilizing effect of former U.S. President Donald Trump and the erratic nature of U.S. commitment under his presidency,” Delury said.
“South Koreans kept a stiff upper lip when Trump made almost mercenary demands for increased payments to maintain the U.S. troop presence, but the fact that Trump is still the de facto leader of the Republican Party makes the return of his approach to the alliance a future concern, and not a historical blip, from Seoul’s perspective.”
Considering it was Washington’s assurance to maintain troops in South Korea that persuaded South Korea to abandon a nascent military nuclear project started by President Park Chung Hee, doubts about the commitment of future U.S. administrations could make Seoul think twice about its reciprocal promise to eschew nuclear weapons.
Failure of diplomacy with Pyongyang

While all South Korean governments have committed themselves to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula since the 1990s, the failure of three inter-Korean summits, the Six-Party talks and even two U.S.-North Korea summits to yield denuclearization have dimmed expectations that Pyongyang might ever abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Delury also noted that “there’s greater fatalism among conservatives about North Korean denuclearization,” comparing the Yoon administration’s view of North Korea’s nuclear program to that of the previous Moon Jae-in government.
“Moon held onto hope that North Korea might be persuaded through dialogue to abandon nuclear weapons, and ironically with Trump, he had a U.S. president who was at least willing to meet and talk with a North Korean leader,” Delury said. “Moon believed that North Korean denuclearization, and by extension inter-Korean reconciliation, would be viable with U.S. support.”  
Yoon’s emphases on South Korea’s alliance with the United States and joint exercises “reflect not only the absence of an active framework for talks but also a lack of hope in diplomacy that could yield Pyongyang’s denuclearization,” Delury said.
Widespread pessimism regarding North Korean denuclearization, paired with perceptions of a deteriorating security situation on the Korean Peninsula, is reflected in Asan Institute surveys of the South Korean public opinion showing higher public support for an independent nuclear deterrent, according to James Kim, a senior fellow at the think tank.
“While support for South Korean nuclear weapons has ranged between 50 and 70 percent since 2010, support has grown since North Korean weapons testing accelerated after the collapse of the 2019 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi,” Kim said.
While Kim echoed Delury’s comments that South Korean public’s lower trust in U.S. extended deterrence was partially brought on by Trump’s “mercantile” treatment of the alliance, he cautioned that the public discourse on nuclear weapons development in South Korea did not yet factor in the economic damage from withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
“Support for developing nuclear weapons dropped by 10 percentage points when respondents were asked if they supported an independent deterrent given the possibility of sanctions resulting from NPT withdrawal, even without mentioning specific consequences,” Kim said, referring to the Asan Institute’s most recent survey on nuclear weapons development conducted in November last year.
In that study, 64.3 percent of respondents said they supported developing an independent nuclear deterrent, but that figure dropped to 54.7 percent when sanctions for violating the NPT were mentioned.
Only 58.7 percent of respondents in the same survey said they supported the deployment of additional U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) batteries, which Kim said suggested support for an independent nuclear deterrent would likely drop further once the potential economic impact becomes apparent.
The initial installation of a Thaad battery in 2017 elicited strong but unofficial punitive economic measures from China, which cost Seoul's economy $7 billion, according to South Korean lawmakers. 
But it remains to be seen if suggestions by South Korean leaders that the country should consider pursuing nuclear weapons, however, well they may be supported by the public, would actually come to fruition.
International deadlock

According to Goh, Yoon’s comments about South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons “is not only a response to international inaction regarding the North Korean threat but also an exploration of Seoul’s self-defense options against Pyongyang, rather than a concrete policy shift.”
The United Nations Security Council held 10 meetings last year to specifically discuss North Korea’s missile launches, but all ended without any new resolutions or sanctions being adopted due to opposition from China and Russia, both veto power-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.
The United States has accused the two countries of giving the North political cover on the international stage to continue firing missiles by blaming Washington and its allies for escalating tensions with joint exercises.
Goh said Beijing’s position that U.S. military pressure is adding fuel to Pyongyang’s illicit weapons program mirrors the broader context of worsening U.S.-China tensions, which he said is also reflected in South Korea’s harder-line approach to the North.
“The Yoon administration sees the North through the context of U.S.-China tensions and its alliance with the United States and is thus placing greater weight on cooperation with like-minded partners, such as the recent Freedom Shield exercise, to counter the North Korean threat,” he said.
Delury questioned whether the strength of the alliance could be measured in large joint exercises that have resumed under Yoon.
“Not only is it impossible for South Korea and the United States to do all the military exercises they want if they’re serious about reducing tensions and engaging in confidence-building with North Korea, but I would also argue there are many different ways the health of alliance could be reaffirmed without advertising or running large joint exercises,” Delury said.
Differing views of the role of the alliance regarding China

But all the experts agreed that the real test of Seoul’s alliance with Washington would come in the event of an armed conflict between the United States and China.
“The United States implicitly desires more South Korean engagement in issues concerning broader regional security, but South Korea remains focused on the North Korean nuclear program, which is just one of several issues where the United States is involved in East Asia,” Goh said, referring to Taiwan.
Kim agreed that the prospect of a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan was looming, if less publicly discussed, source of insecurity in Seoul’s alliance with Washington.
“If U.S. strategic and conventional military assets were to be deployed in Taiwan’s defense, it could lend the appearance of U.S. protection of South Korea becoming sparse,” he said.
While Yoon has positioned himself as being “tough” on China, Delury said that even he or his conservative administration could not easily countenance the South Korea-U.S. alliance being oriented to counter China.
“Whereas the crux of the South Korea-U.S. security alliance is very comfortable in remaining united against North Korea, it becomes less stable where China is concerned. Even Korean conservatives are not comfortable with reorienting the alliance to counter China.”

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