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The Cold War was a time when humankind trembled at the fearful prospect of nuclear war. But it was also a time when strategic stability coalesced from the strategy of nuclear deterrence and a range of negotiations about nuclear disarmament. That’s known as the paradox of the Cold War.
But as the war in Ukraine becomes protracted, the Pandora’s box of the “nuclear taboo” that has persisted for more than 70 years is starting to rattle. More specifically, the growing possibility of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons being used is triggering concerns and controversy in countries around the world. There are even concerns that the war in Ukraine will cause the nuclear dominoes to fall in Northeast Asia.
Everything began with Putin. He was the one who openly hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons while threatening the international nuclear regime. Citing the military threat of the West, Putin elevated the readiness of his nuclear forces four days after invading Ukraine. Then on April 9, he appeared at a public meeting alongside intelligence agents carrying the “nuclear briefcase.”
Putin and other Russian leaders have repeatedly signaled to the West that they may use nuclear weapons if the existence of the state is under threat. The implication here is that Putin might resort to using nuclear weapons if the war turns against him or if the West intervenes militarily.
CIA Director William Burns said during a recent lecture that he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.
Remarks by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have also added to the nuclear domino effect. While attending a security conference in Munich on Feb. 19, Zelenskyy criticized the West — more specifically, the US and the UK — for not keeping the promise they made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances to guarantee Ukraine’s safety if it gave up the nuclear weapons that were stranded there when the Soviet Union collapsed. He also expressed his strong desire to possess nuclear weapons to keep his country safe.
The irony is that these trends only serve to legitimize the nuclear armament that North Korea has pursued over the years and underscore the utility of tactical nuclear weapons. The US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya reinforced the Pyongyang regime’s conviction that nuclear armament is the only path to survival. In effect, the war in Ukraine provides conclusive proof for that mindset.
That was made clear by remarks that Kim Jong-un made during a recent military parade. “The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war,” Kim said, adding that “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish their unexpected second mission.”
Kim’s remark suggests, just as Russia has done, that Pyongyang could make preemptive use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, North Korea’s state-run media said on April 16 that a test-fire of a new tactical guided missile was designed to diversify its firepower options and make tactical nuclear weapons more efficient. That suggests that a nuclear doctrine of deploying tactical nuclear weapons for actual use is taking shape on the Korean Peninsula.
As North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and doctrine strengthen by the day, public demand for nuclear armament is also increasing in South Korea. In a recent poll by the Carnegie Endowment and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 71% of South Korean respondents said that Seoul should develop its own nuclear arsenal in response to the threat not only of North Korea but also of China.
While opposition to nuclear weapons remains robust in Japan, which endured the tragic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan will go nuclear as well if South Korea follows in the footsteps of Russia, China and North Korea. That would leave Taiwan with no choice but to get its own nuclear weapons. This nuclear domino scenario, in which all the countries in the region threaten each other with nuclear arsenals, is the stuff of nightmares.
It’s true that some pundits in Washington have welcomed the prospect of South Korea’s nuclear armament. But the Washington mainstream, including the US government, remains firmly opposed to the idea. From their viewpoint, a nuclear-armed South Korea would be incompatible with the South Korea-US alliance.
The international nonproliferation regime — which is symbolized by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT for short — still holds strong. The moment South Korea crosses that red line, it will be made a pariah on the level of North Korea, doomed to face economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
In short, Korea must choose between nuclear armament on the one hand and economic prosperity and the Korea-US alliance on the other. Choosing the former will make it nearly impossible, either in principle or in practice, to maintain the latter.
It’s undeniable that nuclear proliferation (represented by the North Korean nuclear issue) and the growing possibility that nuclear weapons will actually be used (epitomized by the Russian threat) are raising uncertainty in every country. But it’s still in Korea’s national interest to maintain strategic stability and keep the nuclear dominos from falling in Northeast Asia.
That’s why Korea’s foreign policy should actually be focused on preventing a situation in which every country is scrambling to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. That’s also the top priority of the alliance, and a value that Korea and the US can share.
For starters, Korea could seek to launch a multilateral deliberative body in the region to reduce the surging pressure for nuclear proliferation. That makes it even more important to quickly resume the stalled negotiations on the North Korean nuclear issue.
As the dark pall of nuclear weapons settles over the world, time is on nobody’s side.
Author: Chung-in Moon is Chairman of the Sejong Institute and Former Special Advisor to the President of the Republic of Korea for National Security and Foreign Affairs (2017-2021).
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation from the Kremlin on Feb. 21. On Feb. 27, he put the country’s nuclear forces on alert (AFP/Yonhap News)