Discouraging Deterrence
The Korea Times Column

Discouraging Deterrence

Among the torrent of comments over the war in Ukraine is the view that if Ukraine had retained some degree of nuclear weapons capability instead of giving it all up in 1994, it would have had an effective deterrent to prevent Russia’s involvement in the Donbas, its annexation of Crimea and its recent invasion of the country.

Some argue that even just the semblance of nuclear capability would have been a sufficient deterrent. Though Ukraine never had control or even effective possession of these nuclear weapons, some believe that they could have developed their own weapons or, in the midst of the confusion during the breakup of the Soviet Union, could have squirreled away or diverted some fissile material or even a warhead or two.

This is a dangerous argument overall and particularly when it comes to the Korean Peninsula and all the hard work and sacrifice that has gone into trying to eliminate nuclear weapons in the region.

Such an argument could reinforce the resolve of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s leadership to maintain its own nuclear weapons, continue to use them as dangerous leverage and push back even further prospects for peace and stability in the region.

The DPRK’s current conditions for any progress in discussions are already extremely difficult: lift all sanctions, withdraw all U.S. troops from the Republic of Korea and permanently end all ROK-U.S. military exercises. Some experts believed, however, that there may be some room for some compromise and progress. Yet all prospects for some meaningful negotiations will practically disappear if the DPRK takes to heart commentaries on Ukraine and its forlorn deterrence.

Every effort must be taken to continue to convince the DPRK that its nuclear deterrence capabilities are incompatible with meaningful peace on the peninsula. This has been no easy task.

The government and the people of the ROK have been doing a great job of trying to lessen tensions and have shown great patience and resolve in laying the groundwork for peace, even in the face of clear provocation. They have consistently moderated their rhetoric, even in the case of the DPRK’s latest efforts at developing its missile capabilities, certainly something that is a concern for everyone in the region.

Though clearly frustrating at times, there is no doubt that the ROK’s efforts to build confidence and foster dialogue will continue.

Comments on Ukraine’s lost nuclear deterrence should also not fuel any thoughts of developing nuclear arms south of the 38th parallel. Surveys have shown that over the decades, many in the ROK believe that the DPRK will never give up its nuclear weapons. This in turn has sparked some discussion on the need for the ROK to develop its own nuclear deterrence ― something that could forever foreclose any prospects of peace and bring the nightmare of a peninsula obliterated by nuclear weapons closer to reality.

The protection offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella should be sufficient to banish all talk of the ROK developing its own nuclear deterrent. Besides, such talk, even if coming from a very small minority, is not at all helpful as it might be enough to convince the DPRK to harden its position even further.

The revival of the logic behind nuclear deterrence brought about by the war in Ukraine and how it impacts on the situation on the Korean Peninsula bring to the fore the need to broaden efforts at building security in Northeast Asia.

In this context, the recent work of the Asia-Pacific Leaders Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (APLN), on Improving Security Cooperation in Northeast Asia is particularly timely and relevant. It contains specific recommendations that take into account the complex situation in the region and which hopes to tap into areas where cooperation is possible and build on these to engender greater trust and confidence.

It is also important to keep intact a more formal and legal fora as a landing pad in case of breakthroughs in political and diplomatic dialogues. While the NPT review process and the NPT itself may not serve to directly resolve the serious deadlock over the DPRK’s nuclear program, it is an important forum that can support and reinforce any resolution. The DPRK must continue to be involved in the NPT review process in spite of its 2003 announcement of withdrawal from the NPT.

The war in Ukraine has definite nuclear dimensions. It seems that the concept of nuclear deterrence, particularly by a weaker state against a formidable opponent, has attracted renewed validity. This must not be allowed to happen, and any and all notions of nuclear deterrence as a legitimate part of self-defense should be discouraged.

Carlos D. Sorreta was Philippine ambassador to Russia and Ukraine and director-general of the Philippine Foreign Service Institute. He was also deputy permanent representative at the Philippine Mission to the United Nations and deputy chief of mission at the Philippine Embassy in Washington. He is a member of the Asia-Pacific Leaders Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (APLN). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Philippine Government. This article is published in cooperation with the APLN (www.apln.network).

This article was published in The Korea Times on 20 April 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.

(Image Credit: iStock, harvepino)

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