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Strengthening South Korea’s Non-Proliferation Norm: Should Anti-Nuclear Arguments Have Emotional Appeal?
By Alexander M. Hynd
At one level, efforts to contain, diminish and eventually eliminate possession of nuclear weapons must necessarily be global. Yet, for as long as nation states remain the dominant actors in world affairs, anti-nuclear advocates need to pay particular attention to those countries most at risk of horizontal proliferation. Within the Asia-Pacific, South Korea is viewed as having a particularly weak non-proliferation norm, and as one of the most likely states to ‘go nuclear’. As such, those concerned with preventing a wider regional nuclear arms race should consider how best to promote the non-proliferation cause within South Korea’s domestic political setting.
A number of arguments have been presented in favor of South Korea acquiring either its own nuclear arsenal, or reintroducing American tactical nuclear weapons. These justifications are all based on the spurious logic that such a policy would assist in better deterring or denuclearizing North Korea, by changing strategic calculations on the peninsula. However, a 2019 poll showed that 60% of South Koreans support Korea maintaining nuclear weapons even after unification – suggesting that there may be a more deep-seated psychological appeal to proliferation on the peninsula.
Meanwhile, opponents of nuclear proliferation have so far relied on a competing collection of rational arguments. A nuclear South Korea would risk angering the US and China, and likely be targeted by crushing international sanctions. It would also legitimate North Korea’s own nuclear program and trigger a new nuclear arms race, while permanently damaging the South’s hard-won international reputation as a responsible member of the international community.
This set of anti-proliferation arguments may have helped persuade President Moon Jae-in to rule out the pursuit of nuclear weapons under his administration. Yet they have so far failed to make much impact upon the public, a majority of whom have long supported an independent South Korean nuclear arsenal. Nor have they satisfied all the members of Seoul’s foreign policy elite, some of whom have been increasingly vocal in their public calls for the country to consider its nuclear options.
The most likely path to Seoul ‘going nuclear’ is via the future election of a pro-nuclear right- wing populist government. However, the proliferation threat is not as partisan an issue as it is sometimes portrayed. It was under a liberal administration in 2000 that the country secretly conducted a two-month long experiment in enriching uranium, and in 2017 President Moon’s own defense minister reportedly asked his US counterpart about the possibility of reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, with superpower competition on the rise, policymakers from both right and left who want to avoid choosing between Washington and Beijing may come to see the nuclear option as increasingly appealing.
One answer to this problem is for Washington to reinforce its security guarantees to Seoul, thereby reducing the perceived need for South Korea to go it alone. However, amid alliance tensions over cost-sharing negotiations and widespread speculation that Washington may seek to withdraw some of its troops, that is easier said than done. At the same time, anti- nuclear advocates need to make a case against all nuclear weapons, instead of relying on the US’ nuclear umbrella to prevent proliferation.
Non-proliferation advocates must step up attempts to win over a greater number of people to our side, gradually strengthening the country’s non-proliferation norm. Rational arguments are an important part of this, but activists should acknowledge that — psychologically speaking — humans are not purely motivated by logical reasoning. What is needed is persuasion that also appeals on an emotional level to the country’s public and foreign policy elite. As former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has emphasized, ‘emotion will have to play a big part’ in arguing against the spread of nuclear weapons. One potential starting point for this approach is through a reexamination of Korea’s history at the hands of the atom bomb.
Contrary to conventional accounts, Korea’s involvement with nuclear weapons did not begin in 2006, when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Nor did it start in the 1970s, when President Park Chung-hee attempted to develop South Korea’s own nuclear capabilities. Nor did it start in 1958, when the US first deployed nuclear weapons to its peninsula bases. Nor, even, did it start in 1950, when Washington considered the use of nuclear weapons amid the turmoil of the Korean War. In fact, the clock began at 8.15am on August 6, 1945, when at least 20,000 Koreans had their lives literally torn apart, their bodies scorched and seared by a nuclear strike on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
After the Japanese, Koreans were the second largest group impacted by the nuclear attacks of 1945. The majority of these Koreans were laborers, many of them conscripted by imperial Japan. Their suffering in Hiroshima, and later in Nagasaki, was exacerbated by the discrimination they faced in Japanese society, which prevented them from receiving proper medical attention. One Korean survivor, Lee Jong-keun, was only 17 when the 15 kiloton nuclear blast in Hiroshima ripped the clothes, hair and skin from his body. With radiation burns causing him unimaginable pain, Lee asked his own mother to kill him to ease his suffering. “I can still feel her tears dropping on my skin,” he later recounted.
Countless other Korean victims who subsequently returned to live in South Korea experienced major debilitating health effects, and prejudice against survivors prevented many from telling their stories. As a result, generations of South Koreans have not been exposed to this moving testimony, and have little knowledge of their own suffering at the hands of nuclear weapons. This lack of education has had serious consequences, with some mistakenly viewing the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a victory for Korean nationalism.
By telling the stories of Lee Jeong-kun and others, anti-nuclear advocates can honor these victims, while simultaneously strengthening support for South Korea’s non-proliferation norm. Ultimately, when paired with strong rational arguments, these emotional appeals could help to safeguard a nuclear free South Korea for decades to come.