Should South Korea consider going for nuclear armament in response to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons? The argument ‘for’ is that North Korean denuclearization through negotiations has already failed and that ROK nuclear armament should be considered an alternative. The side ‘against,’ however, argues that the losses far outweighs the benefits regarding independent nuclear armament and advises multi-faceted solutions.
On Tuesday January 24th, 2017, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) held an open debate titled “Countermeasures to North Korea’s Nuclearization: Is South Korea’s Nuclear Armament Inevitable?” at Maple Hall of the Seoul Plaza Hotel. The debate provided an insight for how hard it could be to come up with a national consensus on the nuclear issues on the peninsula.
The Open Debate, moderated by Sung-hwan Kim (former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade), invited renowned speakers Myung-bok Bae (Senior Editorial Writer, JoongAng Ilbo), Choon Kun Lee (Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy) and Woosik Cheong (Director of Peace Network). More than eighty people including domestic and foreign security experts, former and current government officials, diplomats stationed in Korea and foreign reporters attended, showing interest for nuclear-related issues.
The Open Debate took off with a brief introduction of the current strategic situation in the Korean peninsula by Sung-hwan Kim (former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade). While many countries including South Korea, China and others have made efforts to diffuse the North Korean nuclear crisis for many years, the issue has not seen much progress, he noted. He mentioned how various recent developments such as THAAD deployment and the inauguration of the Trump Administration have raised concerns. North Korea has recognized itself as a nuclear power, even declaring so in its Constitution. Such ongoing problems have stirred domestic opinion that South Korea should also take the path to nuclear armament, he remarked. Some say that the ROK should bring in U.S. nuclear weapons; some say to go for the ROK independent nuclear armament; others say that the Six Party Talks should be resumed or find alternatives.
Mr. Myung-bok Bae argued that while nuclear armament might be possible technically, it is in fact unrealistic. He further elaborated that if South Korea were to build its own nuclear arsenal, it will cause serious disruption and power shortage in nuclear power generation. Furthermore, withdrawing from the NPT would heavily stigmatize the country’s image similar to that of North Korea, incurring heavy criticisms from the international community. It would cause a domino effect of economic and political isolation, breakdown of the ROK-US alliance and finally the nuclearization of Northeast Asia, he estimated. Accordingly, it would be better to acknowledge North Korea’s nuclear power as reality and pursue denuclearization as a long-term objective on that basis. However, South Korea’s internal preparation for unavoidable circumstances like an unthinkable crisis in US-ROK alliance might be necessary, he added.
Dr. Choon Kun Lee argued that the ROK nuclear armament was ultimately the best solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The international community and South Korea have failed in their efforts to prevent North Korea’s nuclear armament, and it is because there was an inherent limitation in the thinking that North Korea’s nuclear crisis can be resolved through negotiations, he said. Pointing out that a North Korea possessing nuclear weapon system and a South Korea without nuclear weapons cannot engage in strategic competition, he asserted that South Korea should convince neighboring countries that the ROK nuclear armament is an indispensable choice. He also added that the US nuclear umbrella may not function in times of emergency and China will neglect and allow North Korea’s nuclear weapons, emphasizing that nuclear armament is a matter of national survival.
On the other hand, Mr. Wooksik Cheong argued that the US tactical nuclear redeployment and independent ROK nuclear armament are anachronistic and unrealistic. The US military superiority does not necessitate tactical nuclear redeployment, and if tactical nuclear weapons are deployed by a U.S. Armed Forces based in South Korea, it would rather increase the risk for instigating nuclear war and incite Korean public resistance, he explained. He also pointed out that independent ROK nuclear armament would harm national interest due to difficulties in obtaining uranium and constructing appropriate facilities, and economic disadvantages incurred from withdrawal from various international treaties and agreements. Alternative missile defense such as THAAD is also ineffective because the distance from the North to the South is very short. Instead, he asserted that South Korea should suppress North Korea through combined military power of the ROK and the US, improve North-South relations and negotiate nuclear disarmament as a part of a peace building process rather than an ultimate goal.
After individual presentations, Mr. Bae remarked upon the differences in Dr. Lee’s opinion that North Korea will be able to reunify the Korean Peninsula by only possessing nuclear weapons and the NK leadership’s statement that nuclear armament is for self-defense. Dr. Lee clarified that for South Korea’s survival, the NK’s intentions regarding its nuclear development mattered less. South Korea needs to possess nuclear weapons to prevent NK from attacking at all, he said.
Mr. Bae also questioned Director Cheong’s argument that North Korea could be deterred by the ROK-US alliance: can South Korea still believe in the U.S. commitment to the US-ROK alliance under the Trump administration to the extent that it forgoes any scenarios of nuclear armament? Director Cheong answered that people should be wary of perceiving NK’s development of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) as a game-changer. Building scenarios based upon such a perspective would be playing right into Kim Jung Un’s hands, he remarked. Instead, he replied, South Korea should discuss with the US policy-makers regarding its potential danger, while emphasizing the trust towards US nuclear umbrella within the framework of the three pillars of solutions he mentioned earlier.
Report prepared by APLN Program Officer, Sookyung Cho
Image: Pixabay stock, Manu Zoli.