Proliferation Risks on the Korean Peninsula and Strategic Risk reduction in Northeast Asia

Proliferation Risks on the Korean Peninsula and Strategic Risk reduction in Northeast Asia

In Northeast Asia, the vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons has continued unabated for decades and has been discussed extensively, but the possibility of horizontal proliferation hasn’t received enough attention.

North Korean nuclear capabilities have increased substantially both in terms of quantity and quality. All the bilateral and multilateral attempts to stop this proliferation, including sanctions and diplomatic engagement, have failed. According to the Norwegian Seismic Array (NORSAR), North Korea’s sixth nuclear weapons test in September 2017 had the highest yield to date at 250 kilotons of TNT. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that North Korea possesses around 40 nuclear weapons. Following six nuclear tests, it is believed that North Korea has developed a nuclear fuel cycle capability and has both plutonium and enriched uranium programs capable of producing weapons-grade material. North Korea had also developed missiles with inter-continental reach, and its Hwasong-15 has an estimated range of around 1,300 kilometers. So far in 2022, North Korea has conducted 27 missile launches which it now claims were ‘tactical nuclear drills’. In all probability, if no modus-vivendi is devised, North Korea’s tests are going to continue.

In response to the North Korean nuclear and missile tests, there have been stirrings in South Korean and Japanese societies as those nations begin to rethink their nuclear postures. In various public opinion surveys in these countries, there are indications that a popular sentiment is emerging that these nations should acquire their own nuclear weapons. In 2010, only 55.6 percent of South Korean people were in favor of nuclear weapons acquisitions, but now in 2022, more than 70 percent of the people support the idea. The political leaders in South Korea have been increasingly expressing their support for a domestic nuclear weapons capability, as well.

During his election campaign, current President of South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol argued for the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons to the country. A similar point was raised by Hong Joon-pyo when he said that without the redeployment of US tactical weapons, the US nuclear umbrella appeared less trustworthy. It is important to note that tactical nuclear weapons were present in South Korea from 1958 to 1991. More recently, on 13 October 2022, South Korean President Yoon said that all possibilities are open to dealing with the recent North Korean provocations and he did not deny the possibility of reintroducing US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. There are experts and progressive party leaders in South Korea who say that this is ‘irresponsible nuclear populism’ which would make it impossible to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, but these voices would become weaker if North Korea continues to conduct nuclear and missile tests.

Similarly in Japan, a survey in 2021 conducted by Sankei Shimbun and Fuji News Network showed that 83.1 percent of Japanese people said there should at least be a debate on ‘nuclear sharing’ and the deployment of American nuclear weapons to Japan. Actually, the late Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe said in March 2022 that Japan should ‘think seriously and urgently about nuclear weapons’ and suggested that Japan should host US nuclear weapons facilities on Japanese soil. Earlier, Japan’s Ambassador to the US Ryozo Kato had said that ‘Japan can no longer just rely on the US nuclear umbrella,’ citing nuclear-armed North Korea. Although, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida has expressed Japan’s firm adherence to the three non-nuclear principles adopted in 1967, North Korea’s incessant nuclear and missile tests have the potential to turn public opinion in Japan in favor of nuclear weapons.

In the above context, it’s important to visualize the strategic risk reduction scenario in Northeast Asia. If North Korea continues to pursue vertical proliferation, there are possibilities that South Korea and Japan would look for either US tactical nuclear weapons or, in a worst-case scenario, think about building their own nuclear arsenals. The possibility of nuclear arsenals reaching the hands of ‘problematic’ states or non-state actors should also not be ruled out. Thus, North Korea’s course must be halted as it has the potential to cause a spiral effect, and for that matter the US, South Korea, and Japan must review their policies towards North Korea. Right now, their policy approach appears to favor putting more sanctions on North Korea and then waiting until the sanctions isolate North Korea and domestically weaken its economy, forcing North Korea to come to negotiating table. Meanwhile, these countries have also been individually and collectively trying to prepare against any North Korean adventurism. There have been strategic moves by South Korea and Japan to develop missile defense systems of their own, as well as having the US THAAD systems installed. They are also holding bilateral and multilateral joint military exercises, as well as other strategic consultations. It is quite clear that the policy of ‘sanctions and wait’ has not been able to change North Korean behavior. Quite the contrary, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have advanced alarmingly.

The US, Japan, and South Korea must realize that they need to abandon their ‘offer and wait’ policy. Even though all the other options for dealing with North Korea’s proliferation efforts are imperfect, political and diplomatic engagement with North Korea appears to be the most reasonable among them. The process must begin with an assumption that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear arsenals in the near future. Any such possibility may come only in the middle to long term after reasonable trust-building is accomplished between these countries and North Korea. Even though past phases of engagement with North Korea so far have produced less than desirable results, if they are done in a coordinated way by the US, South Korea, and Japan working together, at least the rapid improvement of the North Korean nuclear arsenal could be halted. Furthermore, it would also mean that a reactive policy of nuclear weaponization by South Korea and Japan could also be avoided. It is quite urgent for the concerned players to realize the gravity of the situation and take up proactive efforts toward the peace and stability of the region.


About the Author

Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Earlier, he worked as Assistant Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi for more than twelve years. He is also Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), New Delhi, Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi and Non-Resident Fellow at the Sejong Institute, South Korea. He writes a monthly column named East Asia Compass at the IPCS website and another column to the Korea Times newspaper.

He completed his Master degree in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University and obtained his M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from the same university. He studied Korean Language in Korea in 2006 and 2010 at the Yonsei University and Sogang University. He has been Visiting Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Korea National Defense University, Northeast Asia History Foundation, Kim Dae-jung Presidential Library and Museum, Institute for Far East Studies, Kyungnam University, Sejong Institute, and Korean Institute for International Economic Policy.


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Image: Panmunjom Joint Security Area in the Korean Peninsula Demilitarized Zone. Clay Gilliland, Creative Commons.