South Korea and Emerging Strategic Risks in the Asia-Pacific
Together with the European Leadership Network, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network has run a series of workshops and conferences on the perception of strategic risks among three Asia-Pacific states, that analyses the impact of those risk perceptions on the nuclear non-proliferation regime. This report by Dr. Lee Sang Hyun provides the South Korean perspective.
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South Korea’s perspectives on strategic risks:
- Systemic fragmentation of the international situation is expected to continue, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is pushing the world into a second Cold War.
- At the regional level, China is becoming a risk factor, and Japan’s recent change in its national security policy has intensified the arms race in Northeast Asia.
- The strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula remains unclear due to the suspension of nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea, the suspension of inter-Korean dialogue, and North Korea’s voluntary isolation since the COVID-pandemic.
South Korea’s main national security concerns:
- South Korea’s immediate security threat is North Korea.Since the beginning of 2022, North Korea has fired about 70 missiles, ranging from short-range missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles.
- North Korea is focusing on developing various types of missiles and has set up a new building on the site of the partially dismantled Punggye-ri nuclear test site, indicating efforts to restore at least some part of the site for a seventh nuclear test.
Policy changes and continuities between the Moon and Yoon administrations:
- While the Moon administration focused on building an inter-Korean peace process, the new Yoon administration is expected to follow in the footsteps of previous conservative administrations and put North Korea’s complete denuclearisation as the basis for improving inter-Korean relations while working toward establishing a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States.
South Korea’s attitude to nuclear weapons:
- Most South Koreans think North Korea’s nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to South Korea, and South Koreans consistently support the development of an independent South Korean nuclear weapons capability, over the deployment of US nuclear weapons.
- Neither of these options are likely to happen in practice. The most realistic option for South Korea is to strengthen US extended deterrence while strengthening South Korea’s own deterrence capability against North Korea.
Impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime:
- The Yoon Suk-yeol government is not seriously considering developing its own nuclear weapons, or the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons by US forces in Korea. South Korea will continue to abide by nuclear non-proliferation norms.
- However, the Yoon government’s nuclear non-proliferation stance has shown small but significant signs of change in recent months due to North Korea’s aggressive nuclear doctrine and the flying of several North Korean drones over Seoul at the end of 2022.
- If North Korea’s nuclear threat becomes more visible and South Korea takes its own path to nuclear development, it will signal the start of a nuclear domino effect in Asia. That would be the worst-case scenario and must be avoided at all costs.
Other reports in this series
The Australian perspective – Michael Cohen
The Japanese perspective – Nobumasa Akiyama
About the Author
Lee Sang Hyun is President of the Sejong Institute in Korea. He also serves as President of the Korea Nuclear Policy Society (KNPS) and Chief of the Planning and Coordination Committee, the Peaceful Unification Advisory Council. He received his B.A. and M.A. from Seoul National University and Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1999. He was a research fellow at the Korean Institute for International Studies (1987-88), the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (1988-90), and Director-General for Policy Planning, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) from May 2011 to April 2013. His main research interests include international politics and security, Korea-US relations, inter-Korean relations, nuclear security and non-proliferation, and East Asian security issues.
The publication of this report was supported by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The views represented herein belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of APLN or ELN, their respective staff, boards, or members, nor do they reflect the views of the FCDO.