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Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy.
You may never have heard of Chung Mong-jun, though it is a name you should probably remember. Chung is the son of the late Chung Ju-yung (the founder of Hyundai). Chung the younger is a prominent member of the ruling Saenuri Party in South Korea, a former supporter of the late Roh Moo-hyun and generally a pro-corporate pragmatist. He has served as a member of the National Assembly since the late 1980s. He was also the mastermind behind South Korea’s successful bid for the 2002 World Cup that it cohosted with Japan. He is now probably the leading advocate of a movement on the right for South Korea to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and develop an independent nuclear deterrent.
He is no quiet advocate either: Just this morning another article appeared in the leading right-wing daily, Chosun Ilbo, citing his blog in which he says: “We have done all we can with North Korea and China, and accepted as much as we can. Now is the time to find an alternative … I am not suggesting we immediately leave the NPT, what I am saying is that we explain to the outside world how the NPT system has failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear development, and how we put in place policies that allow us to exercise our rights.” Chung is no fringe right-wing activist; he is a top member of the ruling party.
Perhaps the most famous advocate for South Korean ‘autonomy’ in its defense is Park Chung-hee
Although not widely understood outside South Korea, there have been those on both left and right who have argued that South Korea should take care of its own defense and no longer rely on the United States. Perhaps the most famous advocate for South Korean “autonomy” in its defense is Park Chung-hee, the ex-major general and leader of the country from 1961 to 1979 after a successful military coup. Park grew increasingly disillusioned with U.S. power as the war in Vietnam went sour and as the United States sought detente with the Soviet Union and normalization with the People’s Republic of China. In 1972, in the face of what he saw as a “security crisis,” he moved to tighten his grip on power by declaring himself de facto “president-for-life” under the so-called Yushin system. At the same time, he moved to build up a national defense industry so that South Korea could be “autonomous in its national defense.” Nuclear development under Park seemingly began in 1972, and only ceased in 1978 due to U.S. hostility.
Today, many South Koreans favor their country going nuclear. In a poll released on February 14, 29.3 percent of South Korean voters were found to support South Korea developing its own nuclear deterrent, while more than 50 percent supported either independent development or the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons onto the Korean Peninsula. Hence, there is no majority support for South Korea going the way of North Korea, exiting the NPT and developing nuclear weapons. At least, not yet.
Leaving the NPT would be a dramatic and almost unprecedented step. The only country to have ever done so is North Korea, and in so doing it brought condemnation and international opprobrium. That said, when looking at the historical record again, one can see why it might just happen.
Park Chung-hee considered developing nuclear weapons because of perceived U.S. disinterest in South Korea’s security. Conversely, unlike the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, the Obama administration maintains strong support for its allies Japan and South Korea, not to mention Vietnam. The results of the New Hampshire primary, however, demonstrate that the United States may not be such a reliable ally going forward as it has been since the 1980s. Unlike U.S. presidents since Reagan, the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has stated publically his opposition to the current state of the U.S.-Korean alliance. Bernie Sanders, victor in the recent primary on the Democratic side, is no friend of the U.S. defense establishment, or U.S. military commitments overseas – he opposes new military actions in the Middle East, for instance. Sanders has not charted a clear position with respect to East Asia, and has not demonstrated much interest in matters of foreign policy outside the Middle East except with respect to trade policy. Nonetheless, an open advocate of isolationism (Trump), or a candidate who has staked out a position of peace and a progressive foreign policy (read: less military spending) are certainly not what the establishment in Seoul would like to see.
We should also not forget about China. China remains North Korea’s chief protector on the world stage, and is also a rising imperial power in Asia with growing leverage in the region. It is South Korea’s top trade partner, and would likely use such leverage to prevent South Korea from going nuclear – if it can. Its economy is currently going through a painful correction. President Park Geun-hye’s widely publicized attempt to gain more active Chinese support for denuclearization has thus far largely failed, leaving certain parts of the right seemingly disillusioned with Chinese diplomatic power in the region.
Given China’s potential opposition, and the state of play in the United States, what does Chung’s call to ‘reexamine’ NPT membership due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ mean?
Given China’s potential opposition, and the state of play in the United States, what does Chung’s call to “reexamine” NPT membership due to “extraordinary circumstances” mean? Now is clearly not the time for South Korea’s government to seriously begin such a conversation with its voters, the domestic weapons and civil nuclear industry. Rather, Chung is signaling a growing unease amongst South Korean elites at the rise of populism in the United States and Chinese unwillingness to get tough with North Korea. Similar ideas have been seen before, with former President Park Chung-hee actually beginning a nuclear development program. Right now, it is unlikely that his daughter will follow in her father’s footsteps on this matter. But as a bargaining card, a means by which to keep U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, though probably an ineffective way to pressure China to get tough on North Korea, the South Korean nuclear question remains open, unanswered and lying in wait for another “security crisis.” One wonders how a future, populist president of the United States, should they be elected, would respond to such talk.