Back To Top

[Editorial] Seoul’s nuclear option

While the six-party denuclearization talks have been in recess for two years now with no sign that North Korea will return to the negotiating table anytime soon, calls for South Korea to set up its own nuclear armament are rising, mostly from conservatives. The proponents, including politicians and media commentators, argue that the South’s nuclear development will be the best means of pressure not only on the North but on China, the staunch supporter of the Kim Jong-il regime in Pyongyang.

The debate on Seoul’s nuclear option comes from the deepening frustration at the absence of progress in the six-party talks and from a sense of helplessness upon the prospect of a third nuclear test by North Koreans after the first in 2006 and the second in 2009, all conducted since the multilateral denuclearization process started in 2003.

North Korea’s nuclear program, now being supplemented by highly enriched uranium capabilities, is becoming a real security threat to Northeast Asia and beyond with the continuing development of long-range missiles, which are soon expected to be able to reach the continental United States. U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions following the North’s nuclear tests have had no effect in forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambition.

If Seoul starts a nuclear development program, openly or clandestinely depending on its strategic decisions, it will have a strong impact on the surrounding powers and the United States, as they know that South Korea can produce nuclear arms within a year or two. The hitherto asymmetrical structure in the denuclearization process in this region will turn into a symmetrical footing, which will be much better for productive negotiations, proponents say.

At present, there are no nuclear weapons in South Korean territory, as the U.S. withdrew all its tactical nuclear arms from here after the two Koreas signed the declaration of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula late in 1991. Washington has emphasized its maintenance of a nuclear umbrella to fulfill its defense commitment to South Korea. Yet, South Koreans’ confidence in the U.S. nuclear protection is thinning as they doubt their ally would risk a direct confrontation with China by making a nuclear retaliation against the North.

For some time, many strategic thinkers believed that China’s fear of a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia involving Japan and Taiwan as well as South Korea, would serve as a strong motivation toward its efforts to keep North Korea from becoming a nuclear power. What happened over the past eight years since the inception of the six-party talks in Beijing proved that China was either unable or unwilling to achieve the talks’ objective, the latter seeming closer to truth.

At the moment, the biggest hurdle to initiating a nuclear arms development in South Korea is the nonproliferation policy of the United States, while the absence of a national consensus on the issue poses a hindrance too. No political group, either in the ruling or opposition forces, has raised it in their platforms in all these decades.

The South Korean government should at least consider declaring an abrogation of the 1991 denuclearization declaration in the event North Korea conducts a nuclear test again. That declarative action should be followed up by a discussion with Washington for actual reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear arms into South Korea, to achieve a balanced defense posture as well as holding an effective leverage in denuclearization negotiations with North Korea and China. Consideration of South Korea’s own nuclear development may then ensue.
catch table
Korea Herald daum