Will South Korea Go Nuclear?

This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)

2013-03-24 We have argued that with the benign neglect of nuclear warfighting by the United States, the American allies in the Pacific will rethink their posture on relying solely on the US nuclear deterrent.

And given the modest sized response by the US with its South Korean allies in the current exercise, is this a sequestration or strategically driven event?


Most explicitly, Richard Weitz provided this analysis in looking at the dilemmas facing Japan.

Confidence in American pledges to defend Japan against external threats—even with U.S. nuclear weapons if necessary—has provided the main reason why Japanese policymakers have continued their policy of nuclear weapons abstention.

But for these pledges to remain credible, the United States needs a solid conventional defense capability along with its allies in dealing with the ascendant power in the neighborhood – China.

If such credibility is called into question, and with a trajectory towards further reductions in nuclear weapons in the United States, processes could well be set in motion which would pressure for change in Japanese policies.

Japanese leaders continue to express confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella that lies at the core of the mutual defense treaty. The continued deployment of substantial U.S. military forces on Japanese territory reinforces the credibility of this guarantee.

Like previous U.S. governments, the Obama administration has managed to limit Tokyo’s interest in developing nuclear weapons by underscoring the U.S. will and ability to help Japan counter external threats. For example, the administration has continued to develop the F-35 and has backed Tokyo’s decision to purchase the plane as its next main front-line fighter.

Japanese policy makers have strengthened their national defenses in response to external threats, but have thus far refrained from seeking an independent nuclear weapons arsenal or radically increasing defense spending to develop a substantially more powerful conventional force.

They continue to rely on their security alliance with the United States to provide these capabilities — persisting in their post-World War II practice of prioritizing defense ties with Washington above all other considerations in determining national security policy.

And it is not just about the United States.  The ability of the allies in the Pacific to work more effectively together to provide for conventional deterrence is a key element as well.

But like much in life, this is a bet. And pressure will grow on this bet as the security pressures unfold in the 21st century and the U.S. works through with its allies a new Pacific strategy.


This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)
With the benign neglect of nuclear warfighting by the United States, the American allies in the Pacific will rethink their posture on relying solely on the US nuclear deterrent. Credit image: Bigstock

Now South Korea is entering into the dynamic of re-considering its posture.

In the latest sign of rising tensions, many influential South Korean politicians and journalists are calling for the development of the South’s own nuclear weapons arsenal, reports the New York Times late Sunday night.

The calls for native nukes counter an agreement the U.S. signed with the South in 1950s, stipulating that U.S. protection precluded the development of nuclear bombs.

The sentiment is a shift for the once confident South which announced three weeks ago that it had cruise missiles that “could hit the offices of the North’s Leaders.” The change of sentiment comes on the heels of the North’s cutting off of communication with the South — a sign the South is evidently taking quite serious.

“The third nuclear test was for South Korea what the Cuban missile crisis was for the U.S.,” Han Yong-sup, a professor of security policy at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul, told the Times. “It has made the North Korean threat seem very close and very real.”

The chain of events started with North Korea boasting about attacking the “American homeland” with nuclear bombs. The knee-jerk reaction from American officials was, of course, that North Korea is not capable of reaching the U.S.

Although America shrugged off the threat, analysts pointed out that North Korea could reach two American allies, South Korea and Japan.

The Times reports that new President Ms. Park Geun-hye is eager to live up to her father’s hard-line stance on the North, and live down the bitter taste left in the mouths of many South Koreans when the North last attacked, shelling an island and killing four people.


As our senior expert on Korea has underscored with regard to these developments:Senior ROK officials have often expressed to us that they want to go nuclear.  Even before the first NK test.  Part of this was to receive a steady stream of US assurances.  Part was they did not want to be beholden or held hostage to Nor Korea.  Secretly, they told themselves that if NK had nukes, they would be used against Japanese-based US forces or Guam or Alaska.

The most recent NK diatribe startled them.  Threatening to use nuclear weapons against South Korea meant using them against … Koreans … How could that be, when we all want to love each other and unite?  The realists in and out of government began to make the case for their own deterrent.

We believe — given the 23 or so nuclear power plants in the ROK — that the South could have enough material for a rudimentary bomb in less than one year.  Then, all it would take is to test it, and put it on a weapon.  The ROK certainly has the technology (as does Japan).

The ROK military has come to us and pushed for a nuclear annex to the war plan.  They want to see what we plan to target, how we would use our weapons, what inputs they might have in target selection and timing, and then get an idea whether we are really committed.  They also want to know if we will use them pre-emptively … say when we saw a missile being fueled.

Finally, they want all this agreed to up front.  Not a bad set of questions from their perspective.  [Recall in the old days when we had nuclear weapons based on the peninsula, we had a set of targets … and could show them (but not give them) the list.  F-16s at Kunsan and Clark F-4s had a nuclear operational capability.

The ROK looks very carefully at US military power and budgets.  All of the above coupled with $487B coming out of the defense budget over the next 10 years … plus another $500B from sequestration has given them pause about the level of our commitment despite the Administration’s new Pacific “strategy.”

The hawks in the new government … (remember … the ROK President is the daughter of a General and sat at her father’s feet during his time in the military and as President …) see this as a way to regain/retain military pre-eminance, pride, and capability … at very little cost.

This is especially true if the UN sanctions have leaks or China does not enforce them or there is another NK provocation.

North Korea’s language during this time is very, very different than the past.  They are making it very clear what they see.

In the past they have followed thru with these types of threats perhaps not in the ways we might think but they have “provocated.”  There is no reason to believe differently this time.

It has not gone unnoticed in the North that the ROK President, despite being a female, has a lineage that they fear.  Her Dad, Park Chun Hee, was admired and feared on both sides of the DMZ.  The ROK Administration is new and this may be a test.

President Park’s response to this will be important.  She should be firm and keep a condition-based open hand while continuing to improve ROK readiness.  I can’t see why it is NOT in their interest to proceed down the nuclear path.  There is little downside.

This, if it happens, will cause a stir in both Japan and China with all the predictable consequences …