Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 00:51 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 00:51 | SYDNEY

Korea wants nukes (South Korea, that is)

18 July 2011 16:08

Crispin Rovere is part of the APLN Secretariat, and a PhD Candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU. Views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of APLN.

A recent survey shows 67% of South Koreans want US tactical nuclear weapons (withdrawn in 1991) reintroduced to the peninsula. Even more (69%) want their own nuclear weapons program. This dramatic upsurge in public support comes after the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Rhetoric from South Korean politicians fuels this desire, as did comments from Gary Samore (quickly retracted), Obama's chief aide on WMD.

But there is more to this than mere bluster. The change in attitude is indicative of fast-shifting realities. First, South Koreans are increasingly pensive about the US commitment to their security. While this anxiety is nothing new, Washington is increasing its flexibility on the peninsula just as China continues its inexorable rise and America is under chronic fiscal pressure.

Until now, US forces in Korea have predominantly been located right up near the 38th parallel, enmeshed with their Korean counterparts. This was the ultimate assurance to South Korea and a major deterrent to the North. In this scenario, no attack by North Korea could avoid killing US soldiers, and once American blood had been spilled, US commitment to the fight became certain.

This posture is shifting. Beginning in the Bush era, plans were drawn up to move US forces to Pyeongtaek in the country's far south, and organise them into a deployable operational force. As late as last August, well after the sinking of the Cheonan, Admiral Mullen confirmed the redeployment would be underway by around 2017. While many Americans see the status quo as ensuring only that Americans die first, South Koreans wonder if this is a first step towards an overall drawdown of US forces on the peninsula.

Of greater concern to South Koreans is what they perceive as America's weak response to the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents. This despite the US-ROK military exercises that were quickly arranged as a deterrent message to Pyongyang, and which attracted strong Chinese opposition.

While Seoul recognises that full-scale invasion by the North is beyond the DPRK, South Koreans have become angry and frustrated by Pyongyang's ability to engage in low-level provocation free from retaliation. Many Koreans now believe nuclear weapons would allow South Korea to respond to such provocations without fear of escalation.

Washington says there's no strategic imperative for America to reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons, and that South Korea remains firmly protected by the US nuclear umbrella by way of submarines. The only result of basing nuclear weapons in South Korea, the US argues, is a further destabilisation of the peninsula and an unnecessary provocation to China.

And yet, this is precisely what Seoul wants. If there is one thing Koreans disliked more than America's response to the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, it was China's. In another survey, 92% of South Koreans expressed dissatisfaction with China's response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Many Koreans feel the prospect of US nuclear weapons on the peninsula will force China to take firmer action against North Korea.

Leading up to the US Nuclear Posture Review last year, even Japan indicated that it would accept a 'sole purpose' doctrine for nuclear weapons — that is, a firm US declaration that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack against themselves or their allies. It was anxieties in Korea which ultimately precluded such a declaration from being made, yet President Obama's intentions to move in that direction remain clear both in his Prague Speech and the Review itself.

Washington's changing nuclear posture, fiscal constraints, lukewarm response to North Korean provocations, and possible redeployment of US troops could all influence Seoul's strategic calculus in favour of nuclear weapons.

With nearly 70% now supporting an indigenous nuclear weapons program, ambitious Korean politicians have begun to support at least a nuclear weapons capability, if not an arsenal. Under the current US-South Korea nuclear power cooperation agreement, Korea is barred from reprocessing spent fuel, which could be separated to produce weapons grade plutonium. Korea now has in excess of 10,000 tons of spent reactor fuel it hopes to be able reprocess under an agreement being negotiated presently. If the US agrees to South Korean reprocessing, this would remove a major obstacle in producing the nuclear fuel cycle needed for a nuclear weapons capability.

Of course, to move to an indigenous arsenal, Seoul would have to abrogate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a step that would bar it from receiving nuclear material from major nuclear suppliers, including Australia. Yet given the precedent set by the US-India nuclear deal, Seoul may calculate that strategic and commercial imperatives will allow nuclear transactions to continue, legitimising South Korea as a nuclear armed state. The consequence would be to undermine non-proliferation efforts worldwide.

 Photo by Flickr user NelC.