“It is time to possess a peaceful nuclear program for the right of self-defense.”
This declaration came not from North Korean state media, but South Korean lawmaker Won Yoo-cheol of the ruling Saenuri Party on January 7, the day after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test.
More politicians from the ruling party have echoed this argument, saying “only South Korea is isolated from nuclear (power) in Northeast Asia.” This is far from the first time that South Korean politicians have spoken in favor of nuclear arms: Former ruling party presidential candidate Cheong Mong-joon openly called for independent nuclear development in 2012, saying South Korea could “achieve peace without the ‘balance of fear.’”
Well-known columnist Kim Dae-jung of South Korea’s most influential newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, also spoke in favor of starting a conversation on the nuclear possession on February 2, saying that withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty may be necessary.
A certain segment of academia in Seoul has also spoken in favor of nuclear development. Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, generally an engagement-inclined expert, has recently been asserting the necessity of nuclear arms, even as he argues for the need to talk with North Korea following most inter-Korean incidents.
‘If South Korea has nuclear weapons, we can more positively lead the dialogue with confidence in our security’
Interestingly, he argues that for Seoul to have nuclear weapons would facilitate inter-Korean exchanges and unification.
“If South Korea has nuclear weapons, we can more positively lead the dialogue with confidence in our security. This will help us to attract North Korea to open its door,” Cheong told NK News. Furthermore, he said the South Korea can take the initiative on North Korean issues. “North Korea has ignored South Korea, arguing to exclusively talk with the U.S. With nuclear capability, South Korea can form an equal relationship with North Korea.”
Cheong’s argument is also different from conservative politicians in that it includes more considerations for South Korea’s defense and welfare financing, the expense of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the South Korean youth’s compulsory military service.
“It is inevitable to sacrifice welfare if North Korea possesses the fearful power of a hydrogen bomb, and South Korea continues to depend on the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella and conventional weapons, as significant defense finance is being used to purchase overseas weaponry,” he said on January 12. Last year, South Korea was ranked as the world’s top weapons importer in 2014, at $7.8 billion worth, and 90 percent of weapons were made in the U.S.
He is concerned over South Korea’s potential economic collapse in an arms race with North Korea, which is growing its capacity in areas such as such as SLBMs.
However, opponents rebut this argument based on other economic concerns.
“South Korea depends on foreign trade for about 60 percent of its exports,” said Hong Hyun-ik, chief of the security strategy research team at the Sejong Institute told NK News. Should the South leave the NPT and start building nuclear weapons, the resulting sanctions originating at the UN level could have an enormous effect, Hong said.
Hong acknowledged that nuclear arms could give the South more leverage in negotiations, but also noted the effect on the U.S.-ROK alliance.
“As soon as the South Korean government officially develops nuclear weapons, the U.S. will break the U.S.-ROK alliance,” Hong said.
Cheong, however, backed up his argument by suggesting the examples of India and Israel, nothing that the U.S. excused India’s nuclear possession because of India’s democratic beliefs. He also suggested practical routes such as withdrawing from the NPT and coordinating with Japan. As both countries are democratic, they are likely to receive special treatment, he argued.
The U.S. has already noted the potential for cooperation between the two countries on this front.
“The recent negotiation of a nuclear cooperation agreement between Washington and Seoul managed to avoid approval of South Korean uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing, but the question may arise in the next decade …. In particular, South Korea looks to its neighbor Japan as a model of nuclear development. Japan is widely regarded as having achieved nuclear latency,” the recently published report submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense from Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reads.
John Grisafi, NK News director of intelligence echoed this point.
“(South Korean nuclear development) could also potentially trigger more arms development and proliferation in the region, including possibly the adoption of nuclear weapons by Japan, who already possess just about all of necessary technology and material to do so,” he said.
Park Sun-won, Ph.D former secretary to President Roh Moo-hyun in National Security Strategy, touched on precisely this point from the CSIS report, arguing to obtain nuclear substances within the framework of the NPT, like Japan.
“Negotiating with interested countries, South Korea needs to possess enriched uranium, the basic technology to make a nuclear weapon,” Park told NK News. “To achieve this, the Joint Declaration on Denuclearization to the Korean Peninsula and the nuclear cooperation agreement (signed last year) need to be revised.”
‘Then there must be nationwide agreement to possess nuclear weapons or not, by plebiscite’
Cheong expects this debate to pick up should Pyongyang test a fifth nuclear weapon, this time with a fully developed hydrogen bomb.
“Then there must be nationwide agreement to possess nuclear weapons or not, by plebiscite,” he told NK News.
He suggested persuading the U.S. by saying Seoul’s nuclear possession could be helpful for Washington’s security.
“If South Korea has a nuclear weapon, North Korea will take more care regarding South Korea, and the U.S. will be safer, relatively speaking,” Cheong said.
SOUTH KOREA’S PAST NUCLEAR DESIRE
South Korea actually has experience in developing nuclear capacity in the 1970s, during President Park Chung-hee’s rule. Park, current President Park Geun-hye’s father, actively pursued nuclear development from 1972 on.
Regarding the reason for the project, former ambassador Donald Gregg told the Hankyoreh in 2011 that it was because “(Park) didn’t trust us. He felt this was … the way North Koreans do things. You have nuclear weapons and nobody dares to attack you.”
Gregg said Park didn’t trust the U.S. because he saw it losing in Vietnam.
According to this interview, the U.S. learned of the nuclear program in 1973. The U.S. tried to persuade Park by reaffirming to him that the U.S. was reliable and would protect South Korea from any attacks, including from North Korea’s.
The recent arguments are not completely same as in the 1970s, when the U.S. was partially withdrawing from Asia after the Vietnam War.
“The U.S. military has been maintaining and even in some ways increasing its presence and activity in East Asia in recent years, including exercises with Japan and South Korea and rotational deployments of more U.S. Army units to South Korea,” said Grisafi.
However, the current situation shares similarities with the Park Chung-hee era. Facing the new phase of the nuclear threat from North Korea, South Koreans do not appear fully satisfied with the nuclear umbrella of the U.S.
South Koreans’ opinions on the ROK-U.S. alliance and Seoul’s own nuclear possession are very complicated. According to the poll conducted by the Asan Institute in 2014, 93.3 percent of South Koreans supported an ongoing alliance between the U.S. and South Korea, compared to 87.2 percent in 2010. 82.6 percent of South Koreans argued the necessity of the alliance despite the economic burden. Also, 64.9 percent of Koreans think that the relationship between the U.S. and South Korea is “unfair.”
At the same time, a majority – though a shrinking one – of South Koreans are hoping for its own nuclear development, at 66.8 percent in 2011, 64 percent in 2013 and 54 percent this year, right after the fourth nuclear test. As seen by the polls, the South Korean public seems torn between two options: the existing stability of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the more provocative move of nuclear possession.
This complicated situation indicates why some conservative politicians and journalists, who are primarily in favor of U.S.-ROK alliance, and some liberal experts, who usually prefer peaceful solutions, are arguing for nuclear possession at the same time. Security and defense in South Korea, based on the U.S.-ROK alliance, is an anti-DPRK conservative agenda but independent defensive capability like what the progressives have favored. As closely as the U.S. and the South have worked together, they may see nuclear development as the South taking greater control of its own destiny.
“No matter what the U.S. says, Seoul can never be 100 percent certain the U.S. would counter North Korean nuclear force against South Korea with its own nuclear force,” said Grisafi.