On February 15th, 2017, the Korea Nuclear Policy Society (KNPS) and Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) co-hosted a joint seminar titled “Non-Proliferation Policy of the Trump Administration and the Korean Peninsula” in Grand Ballroom in Plaza Hotel, Seoul. Nuclear experts discussed the expected effects of the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ policy on nuclear issues in the Korean peninsula and debated the option of going nuclear South Korea going nuclear against the backdrop of North Korean nuclear issues.
The seminar was attended by more than 140 people including domestic and foreign security experts, former and current government officials, diplomats stationed in Korea and foreign reports, showing interest for nuclear-related issues.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Sang Hyun Lee (President, KNPS) forecast that the nuclear non-proliferation trend continued for decades under the US leadership will go through a fundamental change due to the Trump administration and President Trump would also regress to traditional energy industries as he distrusts climate change issues. President Lee also pointed out that the US has warned it would take strong actions against the increasingly deteriorating North Korean nuclear issue.
Chairman Ro-myung Gong (East Asia Foundation / former Minister of Foreign Affairs), in his congratulatory remarks, expressed concerns that the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ stance may cause a great deal of change in relations with Asia-Pacific countries. He added that unless the North Korean nuclear issue, on which the regime’s existence itself depends, is resolved, peace and security of the Korean Peninsula and the Asia-Pacific region would be an elusive task.
In his keynote speech, President Minsoon Song (University of North Korean Studies / former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade) said that the future of the US and the world has become uncertain since the Trump administration took office. The only certainty regarding this administration was that President Trump could change his stance at will at any time, he said. The president may even opt for a negotiation with North Korea if he gauges it would meet his political interest, he said. He wrapped up his speech by arguing that in order to prevent the arms race in Northeast Asia including nuclear proliferation, the North Korean nuclear issue and the THAAD deployment in South Korea should be negotiated together as a package.
The joint seminar consisted of two sessions. The first session titled “Nuclear Energy and Non-Proliferation Policy of the Trump Administration” took off with Professor Chung Won Cho (Seoul National University of Science and Technology) as moderator, Dr. Yongsoo Hwang (Senior researcher, Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute) and Professor Man-Sung Yim (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) as presenters, and Professor Il Soon Hwang (Seoul National University), Dr. Jae Soo Ryu (Manager, Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute) and Dr. Jiyoung Park (Research Fellow, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies) as discussants.
Professor Chung Won Cho (Seoul National University of Science and Technology), while describing the aim of the session, emphasized that South Korea needs to use nuclear energy and it has implemented exemplary nuclear non-proliferation policies. Thus, we need to grasp the direction of atomic energy development and non-proliferation policies of Trump administration that South Korea will take with the US for the next four to eight years, he said.
Dr. Yongsoo Hwang (Senior researcher, Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute), in his presentation titled “Energy and Nuclear Energy Development Policy of the Trump Administration,” explained that there are some realistic constraints on fundamental change of the energy policy by Trump administration, because the head of the US Department of Energy had not yet been appointed and budget readjustment is also difficult. However, he suspected that with the “America First Energy Policy,” the Trump administration would take a different approach from that of the previous administration and develop traditional coal and oil industries under free market system rather than alternative energy industries such as solar and wind power generation. Dr. Hwang also pointed out that there could be some changes in spent fuel management. He was skeptical that the business-minded Trump would invest in enormous public research and development. He added that specific policy changes would depend on who would be appointed as the Deputy Secretary and Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Energy Department, and these changes would influence ROK atomic energy and general energy policies.
Professor Man-Sung Yim (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), in his presentation on “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Policy of the Trump Administration,” argued that Donald Trump’s inauguration as President will become an influential variable in the global trend of nuclear non-proliferation. Professor Yim pointed out that Trump had already stirred up controversies by hinting his support for allowing nuclear armament in Northeast Asia even before his election. He then explained the difficulty in predicting how Trump’s main political stance of prioritizing US interests would affect the current nuclear non-proliferation trend in the world. Trump opposes the status quo of the one-sided protection of allies by the US and seeks to do away with free trade, and has shown an authoritarian personality, he summarized. Professor Yim predicted that the US national interests would be prioritized over the establishment of world order through multilateral cooperation or compliance of law and morality. While other countries’ national security and ethical issues might be shadowed by the US national interests, it is possible for the US to become more actively involved in direct threats such as the NK nuclear issue, he remarked. He also anticipated a rising number of conflicts due to such tendencies of the Trump administration and a growing interest in nuclear weapons from economically weak countries.
In the discussion followed, Professor Il Soon Hwang (Seoul National University) emphasized that regulations pertaining to nuclear facilities in the US are predictable, transparent and professional. While these regulations will not see big revisions, new nuclear facility development would be difficult in terms of economic feasibility, he predicted. With regard to nuclear non-proliferation, he predicted the Trump administration would maintain what previous administrations have done, despite worrisome remarks in the early period since inauguration. What he is very concerned about is that the ROK has been relying too heavily upon the US for defense and the ROK should establish its own minimum defense system against contingency.
Dr. Jae Soo Ryu (Manager of Korea Atomic energy Research Institute) presented a possibility that unlike Obama, Trump would not subsidize alternative energy industries and rather strengthen energy export policies to allies such as South Korea to boost coal and oil industries. He also analyzed that Trump, feeling a sense of crisis that China and Russia took over leading roles in nuclear technology, may focus on development of nuclear technology. Using the expression ‘national prosperity and military power’ to describe Trump’s conviction, Dr. Ryu argued that an economic benefit-based cooperation would be seen in the ROK-US relations.
Dr. Jiyoung Park (Senior Research Fellow, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies) pointed out that out of all the Trump administration’s characteristics, people were most anxious of its uncertainty. It reflected how Trump had not shown any clear policies or direction in non-proliferation issues before his inauguration, she said. However, seeing how Trump prioritizes US interests and would adhere to strict positions from the Republican Party in contrast with Obama who led and pushed forward non-proliferation policies, Dr. Park forecast that he would not spend US money on nuclear disarmament. Also, since Trump has a strong tendency to make light of the seriousness of climate change, atomic energy development and related policies would not gain much interest, she argued. Instead, he would focus on revitalizing the manufacturing sector. Finally, Dr. Park said that it seemed Trump still did not exactly know what policies he should take and everyone should carefully observe how policies would be unfolded.
The second session titled “The Possibility of ROK Nuclear Armament and its Evaluation” took off with Professor Yong-Sup Han (Korea National Defense University) as moderator, Professor Bong-geun Jun (Department of Security and Unification Studies, Korea National Diplomatic Academy) and Professor Taewoo Kim (Konyang University) as presenters. Dr. Sang Hyun Lee (Senior Research Fellow, Sejong Institute), Wooksik Cheong (Representative, Peace Network) and Mr. Jung-Hoon Lee (Reporter, Shin Dong-A) followed up with lively discussions.
With the rise of ‘America First’ policy by the Trump administration and North Korea’s 30 years long pursuit of ‘North Korea First’ policy and 20 years long pursuit of ‘Military First politics’, Professor Yong-Sup Han (Korea National Defense University) called for the need for an analysis of the North’s nuclear threats and any possibilities of South Korean nuclear armament.
Professor Bong-geun Jun (Korea National Diplomatic Academy) made a presentation on “North Korea’s Advanced Nuclear Capability and the Prospect of its Nuclear Strategy”, analyzing North Korea’s nuclear principles from various angles to examine its nuclear threat as well as emphasizing the importance of understanding the software parts of the principles such as conditions and methods of using nuclear weapons. Since North Korea has thrice claimed different nuclear principles and shown a big gap between its declared nuclear strategy and required nuclear capability and posture, he argued that North Korea’s nuclear strategy is yet unstable. In fact, North Korea has presented the principles of nuclear deterrence, retaliation and no first use to the international community. Prof. Jun, however, pointed out that the North nuclear threats have never been weaker as North Korea has consistently maintained its intent for preemptive nuclear strike against nuclear arms held by its ‘aggressive enemies’ represented by the ROK-US alliance. He expected that the North would try to build more nuclear weapons with further diversification and mobility of its nuclear arms as well as the development of the SLBM as it has no nuclear capabilities necessary for retaliation against possible preemptive nuclear strikes. He also said that North Korea would expand its principle of asymmetric escalation and show belligerent responses toward South Korea that outplays the North in its military capabilities. He concluded that the ROK must look more closely into its denuclearization diplomacy and strengthened military responses against North Korea to prepare a more effective solution against North Korean nuclear threat.
Professor Taewoo Kim (Konyang University / former President of Korea Institute for National Unification) made a presentation on the concept of new version of ‘Peaceful Nuclear Sovereignty’ under the title of “Possibility of South Korea’s Nuclear Armament: A Perspective on Diplomacy and Security.” According to him, the ‘Peaceful Nuclear Sovereignty’ calls for building the potential for nuclear armament to prepare for possible contingencies on the assumption that going nuclear-armed is not possible realistically. Prof. Kim explained that the concept includes all preparations for nuclear armament in the case of a national survival emergency, except the withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and nuclear missile production itself. The current North Korean nuclear crisis can be summed up into three aspects: serious security crisis, increased importance of military deterrence and deepening reliance on alliance security. Prof. Kim dismissed most of domestic opinions over the ROK’s nuclear armament as unrealistic except the conditional, diplomatic and step-by-step nuclear armament argued by a few presidential candidates from the ruling party. A ROK nuclear armament without taking into account the extremely foreign-dependent nature of the ROK economic and security structure, geostrategic disadvantage of being surrounded by nuclear states, and South Korea’s social conflict and segmentation was merely an irresponsible response, he argued. However, the national threat of North Korea’s increasing provocations should not be overlooked. Prof. Kim emphasized that the ROK should maintain its alliance relations and its membership of the NPT. He also said that it should take a major step forward in alliance diplomacy and prepare an adequate delivery system, nuclear weapon-related technical capability, control tower of the government and nuclear power master plan to avoid the so-called window of vulnerability.
Dr. Sang Hyun Lee (Senior Research Fellow, Sejong Institute) as a discussant pointed out that North Korea has begun to act like a nuclear power as it organized its own nuclear principles, regardless of whether or not the international community recognizes the North’s nuclear possession. However, he stressed that a step-by-step and long-term denuclearization should be taken into account as a nuke-free North Korea would not be done at once. While South Korea’s nuclear armament is an unrealistic option that should not be considered, it is unrealistic, either, that the ROK and US should stop their joint military exercises as North Korea demands, according to Dr. Lee. All in all, there are three options that the ROK can take: extended deterrence through the US nuclear umbrella and THAAD, stronger non-nuclear deterrence and pressure on the North in cooperation with the international community. In cooperating with the international community, Dr. Lee agued, the ROK must prepare alternative policy options to mend the loopholes that may be caused by China.
Meanwhile, Wooksik Cheong (Director, Peace Network) warned against the ROK being played by the North’s strategy. He said that the ROK should understand the North’s nuclear principles in consideration of strategic ambiguities held by the North who remains absolutely weaker than the ROK-US alliance forces. He also emphasized that the main cause of the current stalemate of the North nuclear crisis is not rooted in the military capabilities of the ROK-US alliance but the lack of a strong will to end the problem. In this sense, he suggested “Nuclear Freeze for Peace Treaty” as a starting point of delaying and stopping the North’s nuclear tests. The suggestion included specifying what, how and when for the North Korean nukes to be dismantled in the peace treaty, that is, attaching an additional protocol to the basic agreement.
Last but not least, Mr. Jung-Hoon Lee (Reporter, Shin Dong-A) agreed for South Korea’s nuclear armament, arguing that the ROK should start working on nuclear armament without the consent of the US unless the ROK wants its argument to ring hollow. Following the sudden death of Kim Jong Nam, he raised the possibility of conflicts and discords between China and North Korea as China might have considered Kim Jong Nam the one who can be of use in emergency. He added that such a situation might offer South Korea an opportunity to prepare nuclear armament.
In his wrapping up comments, Professor Taewoo Kim repeatedly emphasized that economic shock, damage to the ROK-US alliance and pressure from China and Russia will deal quite the blow to South Korea’s security if the country takes decisive action towards nuclear armament. If nuclear armament had to be done, it should at least be implemented in parallel to the alliance, he asserted. In order to sidestep institutional setbacks, he claimed that South Korea should benchmark Israel’s strategy of ambiguity by unofficially declaring its possession of nuclear power to gain international status but evade sanctions. As such a strategy should be based upon an extremely high level of calculations, Professor Kim called for a government that would deliberate upon this problem.
Professor Bong-geun Jun, in his wrap-up remarks, said it was regrettable that South Korea, a country that has so much at stake regarding nuclear issues, has very few nuclear experts and little public interest. When the then President Obama declared No First Use Policy in 2016, it became a very important and much discussed topic in the US and allied countries. South Korea, on the other hand, was indifferent despite it being under the US’ nuclear umbrella and susceptible to the policy, he criticized. Recognizing that nuclear armament is an important pillar in national security despite his opposition against the option itself, Professor Jun called for a thorough and systematic policy research on this policy option.
Report prepared by APLN Program Officer, Sookyung Cho
- ‘S Korea forum tackles uncertain nuclear issues’ by Frank Smith, Press TV
- ‘NK nuke conundrum requires visionary diplomacy’ by Joel Lee, Korea Herald
Image: Unsplash stock, Yohan Cho.