South Korea’s Nuclear Messages

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
Feb 01, 2023

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Eyebrows were raised in the US, Europe, and East Asia when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol made a statement that the country could go nuclear if North Korean threats keep rising.

This statement was better understood by strategic analysts and nuclear experts, as they know that South Korea would not take long to build a nuclear arsenal if it decides to do so. It sparked analytical articles on possible consequences because South Korean nuclear weapon capability can have cascading effects on other countries that are non-nuclear yet nuclear capable.

Taking a U-turn and without much delay the South Korean President at Doha meet declared that South Korea is committed to abide by the terms and conditions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the NPT.  Why did he at all mention about possibility of going nuclear and then quickly vowed to abide by the NPT commitments?

When the President of a country floats the possibility of opting for the nuclear option in a defence and foreign affairs briefing, it cannot be considered a fleeting or off-the-cuff remark. The reason analysts in different parts of the world took due note of Yoon’s remarks and began to analyse its implications is the simple fact that South Korea has the fissile materials and the technical know-how to make nuclear weapons.

The reason why President Yoon did not want to go any further on his statement and clarified the country’s commitment to non-proliferation is because of uncertainty surrounding the after effects of going nuclear, such as international sanctions led by its alliance partner—the United States. In fact, South Korea was attempting to build a nuclear arsenal in early 1970s, especially after the US troops withdrawal from Vietnam and the apprehensions about US commitment to Asian security during that time. But then it was Washington, which came heavily upon the South Korean leadership to prevent it from adopting the nuclear path.

However, President Yoon perhaps deliberately made the statement on the potential nuclear option for sending multiple messages. First, the message was to North Korea that kept on testing missiles after missiles and threatening South Korea in an obnoxious belligerent tone from time to time in 2022. The message was that if push comes to shove, Seoul is capable of developing its own deterrence or retaliatory strike capability.

The second message was meant for the Biden Administration. South Korea was unsettled when President Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump was unduly critical of America’s alliance treaties and at one time advocated that South Korea and Japan should defend themselves even from any nuclear threats. Subsequently he began to engage strong men like North Korean President Kim Jong-un. Secondly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated statements about possible use of nuclear weapons over the Ukraine War, raised questions over the survivability of non-nuclear states, such as South Korea in the face of the rising threats from North Korea. Third, South Korea sought to strengthen the US extended nuclear deterrence and requested Washington to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula, something openly rejected by the Biden Administration.

It is quite likely that President Yoon sought to signal that in the absence of a strong and reliable “extended deterrence” provided by the United States, Seoul would be forced to defend itself against a nuclear threat by developing its own nuclear capability.

Significantly, majority of the people in South Korea support an independent nuclear deterrence capability of their country. This popular support creates apprehensions in countries that do not want to see a nuclear weapons capable South Korea, and in fact, emboldens the South Korean Government to cross the proverbial nuclear rubicon, if needed, with minimal or no domestic opposition.

South Koreans know that Japan would not like a nuclear South Korea but Japan cannot prevent South Korea from going nuclear. South Korea and Japan have more than good relations in the fields of trade and commerce, but the political divide between them is not hidden. The Kishida government in Tokyo has embarked upon an ambitious defence build up that includes acquiring a second strike capability. Does it concern South Korea? It is difficult to say. But Japan too has also some doubts over the reliability of US extended nuclear deterrence and has begun its new defence preparedness.

It is a fact that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is now a pipe dream, as North Korea has become a de facto nuclear weapon power. There are analysts who think that the next step for the Biden Administration may be nuclear arms control talks with North Korea rather than disarmament talks with Pyongyang to make it give up its nuclear weapons and missiles.

If it comes to that, will South Korea remain non-nuclear? Will not South Koreans prefer not to be dependent on the US for their security? The question that is being asked in the South Korean academic circles is whether the US would defend Seoul at the cost of San Francisco? One South Korean analyst argues that the US should be happy about a nuclear South Korea because it would not have to directly respond to a North Korean nuclear threat against South Korea.

At the moment President Yoon is unlikely to exercise the nuclear option for fear of its unknown consequences. But by raising the prospect of nuclear option he has ignited a significant debate on the nuclear uncertainty in East Asia. If South Korea at all goes nuclear, will Japan be far behind or will Taiwan be far behind? If the US vehemently opposes its allies going nuclear, will it punish them to an extent that would end its network of alliances?