The Nuclear Umbrella and the Afterlife
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The Nuclear Umbrella and the Afterlife


APLN member Cheong Wook-Sik points out that when it comes to deterrence against North Korea, there is a need to draw a distinction between “abilities” and “feelings”. Skepticism surrounding the reliability of US extended deterrence may exacerbate feelings of insecurity and dependence, hindering South Korea’s ability to pursue diplomatic solutions.

At this point, we should be asking ourselves whether it really benefits us to succumb to constant feelings of inadequacy when there is already an ample deterrent against the North. Obviously, it does not.

To begin with, as we bolster our military capabilities and posture against the North to assuage those feelings, North Korea will just work harder to advance its nuclear capabilities, given its inferior position vis-à-vis the South Korea-US alliance.

As the arms race and security dilemma get caught up in a vicious cycle, the thread holding up the nuclear sword of Damocles starts to quiver and fray. In other words, actions meant to deter war can actually end up fueling the threat of war.

Not only that, but when South Korea fixates on strengthening the already massive extended deterrence that the US provides, it becomes harder and harder to stand up to Washington when the price it demands becomes excessive.

Beyond the recently launched negotiations on our respective shares of defense costs, it even becomes difficult to speak up against self-serving US demands regarding other economic issues, such as those relating to semiconductors.

For this reason, some have advocated for South Korea’s independent nuclear armament, and many have agreed with them. But even when we set aside questions of how realistic and feasible such an approach would be, it is important that we understand how South Korea’s dependency on the US ironically becomes magnified the moment we decide to arm ourselves with nuclear weapons.

Enabling nuclear armament would require the consent of the US, and the amendment of the South Korea-US Atomic Energy Agreement in particular. The determinations of the US would also assume major importance in terms of whether South Korea would be subject to economic sanctions.

It would take around ten years at least for South Korea to establish nuclear capabilities on par with the North’s. During that time, the crisis on the peninsula would escalate, which would only leave South Korea with a greater need for USFK and US extended deterrence. Could South Korea realistically say no to any unfair demands the US might make under these circumstances?

As inter-Korean relations and the political situation on the peninsula undergo major shifts today, it has become more and more urgent for us to let go of our overblown delusions of “victimhood” against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and our sense of inadequacy in terms of a deterrent. Only then does it become possible for us to really understand our adversary.

As we refrain from showing off the emergency capabilities we do in fact possess, we may come to understand that diplomacy represents another path to preserving peace and security.

The full article can be accessed on the Hankyoreh website here.

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