U.S. President Joe Biden attends a joint news conference with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on May 21, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. On January 11, 2023, President Yoon said that if North Korea’s nuclear threat continues to rise, his country will pressure the United States to redeploy nuclear weapons in the South, or else it may build its own nuclear arsenal. (White House Photo / Cameron Smith, via Wikimedia Commons)
Last week, Seoul formally put its nuclear option on the table for the first time since 1991. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said the country would consider building its own nuclear weapons arsenal if the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea continues to grow.
In 2022, North Korea launched over 90 missiles. The tests followed a major overhaul of North Korea’s nuclear strategy, which now allows for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a crisis. Experts expect North Korea’s increased nuclear aggression to continue in the new year. Many even expect Pyongyang to conduct another nuclear test, which would be the country’s first since 2017 and a watershed event against a backdrop of global turmoil.
South Korea faces strong strategic reasons for continuing to develop its own nuclear arsenal. While the United States has tried to keep a lid on South Korea’s nuclear ambitions, few traditional nonproliferation or counterproliferation policies are well poised to reverse North Korea’s current nuclear policy. It’s time for a new approach.
South Korea’s nuclear ambitions. South Korea faces an increasingly capable nuclear adversary in its northern neighbor. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, first tested in 2006, has grown rapidly. The country now has dozens of nuclear weapons and continues to diversify its arsenal, building more sophisticated delivery capabilities, which include intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. Every month, North Korea issues dozens of threats (usually to the United States), many of which are nuclear in nature. North Korea has been extremely belligerent of late, testing more nuclear missiles in the past year than in the previous five years combined.
South Korea also has a complicated relationship with its western neighbor. South Korea relies heavily on China for trade, but Seoul’s strong military alliance with the United States contributes to China’s encirclement views. Until now, South Korea has walked a tightrope between its biggest military partner and biggest trading partner. But it won’t last. Most South Koreans believe that China will be the biggest threat to their country in the next 10 years.
South Korea has a troubled security environment, and US security guarantees to South Korea are intended to ensure that these threats do not materialize. The guarantee offers assurance that Seoul will be protected from any adversary. The warranty is one of the strongest in the United States. The two countries have significant military cooperation. The US military currently has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, regularly participates in large-scale military exercises with South Korean forces and, under current policy, would fight under joint command with South Korean forces if war broke out.
But even with all this, the security guarantee does not seem to be enough to contain the bubble of proliferation advocates. Policymakers in South Korea have long called for the return of US tactical nuclear weapons, and a handful of more conservative politicians have occasionally suggested that the country would be better off with its own nuclear arsenal. This conversation is becoming more and more mainstream. The debate was even a key talking point and part of the conservative party’s platform in the last South Korean presidential election.
For years, most South Koreans have supported the idea of the country building its own nuclear weapons. By 2022, such support has risen to over 70 percent. Russia’s continued use of nuclear threats in the war in Ukraine could push that number even higher as nuclear anxiety grows. South Koreans are keenly aware that the United States and its allies are effectively deterred by Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and worry that a similar situation could repeat itself in Asia. Public support for South Korea’s development of its own nuclear weapons has no doubt contributed to bringing that policy out of the limelight and into the spotlight.
Is the US security bond enough? If South Korea is so worried about nuclear threats from North Korea, the solution is to get assurances that the United States will come to its aid in the fight against Pyongyang — or so the logic goes. But it’s not that simple.
The United States and South Korea already have a strong relationship, and faith in American security guarantees is already high: at least 6 in 10 South Koreans are confident that the United States will fight with them against North Korea if necessary.
American politicians have regularly emphasized the criticality of the relationship between the US and South Korea, and the recent Biden administration Nuclear Posture Review made some typically tough promises in defense of South Korea, even stating that “any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the termination of that regime. There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could use nuclear weapons and survive.”
But maybe a very credible security guarantee just isn’t enough – or maybe even part of the problem. My research has shown that, even when South Koreans believe in the US alliance, many still do not see it as a reliable solution to their perceived nuclear risks. According to surveys, the more South Koreans believe the United States would use its nuclear weapons to defend them, the more they shy away from the US alliance and prefer their own government to build an independent nuclear capability.
Although counterintuitive at first glance, the rationale is simple: Why should the South Koreans trust the United States to be sufficiently cautious with its nuclear weapons—refraining from using them unless absolutely necessary? After all, the previous US president promised to rain “fire and fury” on the peninsula.
South Koreans have a significantly higher level of confidence in their own government’s ability to make responsible nuclear decisions than in an ally. Moreover, most South Koreans believe that their continued alliance with the United States will eventually draw Seoul into a nuclear war that it might otherwise avoid.
And understandably, the South Koreans do not want a nuclear war.
Any nuclear use on the Korean Peninsula – even if only North Korea was targeted – would likely have devastating environmental and health effects on the entire peninsula. And Seoul is less than 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Pyongyang. Even if North Korea invaded South Korea, most South Koreans still say in polls that they would prefer not to use nuclear weapons unless North Korea has already used them first.
Logically, South Koreans cannot take for granted that this preference will be reflected in US policy. American nuclear doctrine makes clear that the United States has the right to “nuclear first use,” a tactic that involves launching nuclear weapons at an adversary before they have a chance to launch their own. Given that North Korea’s missiles can now reach the US homeland, any war strategy for the United States is likely to prioritize the destruction of these assets—and a first strike would be the easiest way to achieve that goal. For this reason, a credible US nuclear security assurance alone will not alleviate South Korea’s nuclear concerns.
Build or borrow? President Yoon was quick to note that even now South Korea has options other than building its own nuclear arsenal. One of them is a request that the United States redeploy some of its tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. In 1991, the United States withdrew its South Korean-based arsenal of approximately 100 nuclear weapons to end the Cold War. Since then, no US nuclear weapons have been stationed in the country.
A redeployment of these weapons, however, would do little to address the core issues of the current crisis—and perhaps the opposite. US nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea would heighten North Korea’s fears that the United States is preparing for the decapitation strategy it so boldly announced in its recent National Defense Strategy. There is also a moral hazard: Having US nuclear weapons nearby may embolden some in South Korea to push back against North Korea’s threats, further exacerbating tensions.
Moreover, unless these weapons were operated under South Korean command—which is extremely unlikely—questions about transparency, cooperation, and trust in U.S. nuclear planning would remain.
A redeployment of nuclear weapons would certainly signal American interest in South Korea’s defense, but what is needed now is a combination of commitment and caution. Honest communication about when and why nuclear weapons will be used, combined with clear indications of how nuclear use will be avoided, is more important to the United States than simply showing that it has muscle. They have been exhibited for decades.
A redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons would also leave South Korea vulnerable to many of the same risks that it would expose itself to by building its own arsenal. In this sense, even opting to redeploy the US over nuclear proliferation – even though it might put less of a strain on the alliance in the short term – remains dangerous.
A redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons would not solve domestic political pressures in South Korea. A poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that two-thirds of South Koreans would rather their government build its own nuclear weapons than accept the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons, while less than 10 percent prefer US weapons to South Korean ones. Open opposition to US tactical nuclear weapons is also strong – at 40 percent, compared to just 26 percent who oppose South Korea building its own nuclear weapons. These figures suggest that a different strategy is needed, one that recognizes the need for more South Korean agencies in the nuclear planning process.
Can setbacks work? If neither cementing the guarantee nor redeploying tactical nuclear weapons is the answer, what can the United States do instead? One option may be to counter South Korea’s nuclear weapons drive with the tried and tested policy of non-proliferation. Nonproliferation uses both carrots—security guarantees intended to protect a vulnerable country from nuclear threats—and sticks—sanctions and other punishments intended to deter that country from developing nuclear weapons. Understandably, the US approach with its allies generally prioritizes the carrot, but that may not continue to work with South Korea.
Could counter-proliferation strategies, therefore, be successful?
Well, they did in the 1970s. When former South Korean President Park Chung-Hee embarked on a secret nuclear weapons acquisition program, the United States responded by threatening to reduce its support for South Korea and reduce its military presence there. Pressure from Washington was a key component of Park’s decision to end the program — although domestic politics and concerns about the country’s international reputation also contributed to the decision.
But what worked in the past may not work today. In the 1970s, South Korea did not face nuclear threats as obvious as the ones it faces in 2023. A US withdrawal would much more likely convince Seoul that the only way to stop North Korea is to deter Pyongyang on its own.
Public opinion surveys of South Korea show that support for nuclear proliferation remains relatively high, even as the public understands well that building nuclear weapons would come at a significant cost to the quality of South Korea’s alliance with the United States. Threatening to leave might just leave the United States looking over its shoulder with regret.
Other anti-proliferation policies have had mixed results. Experts argue that the threat of sanctions can often dissuade countries from pursuing nuclear weapons. However, when sanctions are imposed, they do little to reverse existing programs. Instead, targeted countries adapt, and the isolation that sanctions produce can reinforce the perceived need for stronger, more independent military forces.
South Korea may already be past the point where sanctions would be useful. Multiple studies have shown that South Koreans who support nuclear proliferation are not deterred by the threat of sanctions. Instead, South Koreans already anticipate that proliferation would result in significant sanctions – but would still support the policy.
The expectation that arms proliferation will result in sanctions is probably correct. A South Korean nuclear weapons program would almost certainly violate commitments on nuclear non-proliferation and the peaceful, civilian use of transferred nuclear technologies that Seoul agreed to when it signed the nuclear cooperation treaty with the United States. This agreement, which remains in effect until 2040, currently prohibits uranium enrichment in South Korea, at least without prior approval, as well as some types of plutonium reprocessing. Those capabilities would be needed for a robust nuclear weapons program. Violation of the nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States could therefore trigger sanctions against Seoul. It would even legally allow the United States to demand that technology transferred under the agreement be returned. This is unlikely to be enough to stop South Korea’s nuclear program if Seoul commits to one, but it underscores that the United States — if it so chooses — could incur a very heavy cost.
The United States can also advance nonproliferation by leading by example. Making it clear to South Korea that the global nuclear nonproliferation regime is critical—and that South Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT would be unacceptable—could help reassure Seoul. After all, the country is very concerned about its hard-won international reputation, and unilaterally abandoning a major international treaty would be no small step.
The United States can also commit to a policy that prioritizes restraint and arms control. Demonstrating its ability to adopt a more cautious attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons may alleviate some of the concerns about Washington’s willingness to escalate to nuclear use, and would model valuable norms in the nuclear space—norms that might even help balance the behavior of other nuclear-armed states. .
Why did North Korea leave the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty?
Under the accord, North Korea is barred from developing nuclear weapons, but it said it was withdrawing from it with immediate effect today, blaming US aggression for its decision. On the same subject : The next ‘Squid Game?’ Huge ratings on Netflix raise hopes for the next Korean hit. North Korea warned the United States against retaliatory military action, saying it would “ultimately lead to the third world war”.
When did North Korea leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT, which entered into force on January 11, 2003. Neither the NPT member states, nor the NPT depository states (Russia, the UK, and the USA), nor the UN Security Council gave any agreed statement on that issue.
Why did Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Fail?
From failure: The NPT framework cannot accommodate India’s position or address China’s flagrant aid to Pakistan; his review conferences have repeatedly failed to grapple with the Israeli agenda; The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea withdrew from the agreement.
Is North Korea part of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty?
As of August 2016, 191 countries have become signatories to the treaty, although North Korea, which acceded in 1985 but never complied, announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, following the detonation of nuclear devices that violated basic obligations. See the article : The United States Attorney for the District of South Carolina appoints an Environmental Justice Coordinator.
Is South Korea a NATO ally?
The Republic of Korea is an active NATO partner. Read also : CNBC named North Carolina the best US state to do business in 2022. Since 2005, the Alliance and Seoul have developed a strong partnership based on shared values.
Is South Korea allied with Russia? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Korea and Russia established diplomatic relations in 1991. On November 20, 1992, Russia and South Korea signed a protocol providing for regular visits by military officials and naval ships between the two countries.
Are Japan and South Korea part of NATO?
Japan is a member of the G7 countries, and all G7 members except Japan are in NATO. Therefore, it is natural that some people wonder if Japan is in NATO or why it is not part of NATO. Is Japan in NATO? No, Japan is not in NATO.
Who is South Korea’s main ally?
South Korea is now the world’s 10th largest economy and has a world-class military that fought alongside the United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan. “For nearly seven decades, this alliance has been an anchor of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and throughout the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said.
Why did North Korea withdraw from the NPT?
H1: North Korea withdrew from the NPT because North Korea wanted to acquire nuclear weapons to protect its national security from surrounding nuclear states.
Was North Korea part of the NPT? As of August 2016, 191 countries have become signatories to the treaty, although North Korea, which acceded in 1985 but never complied, announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, following the detonation of nuclear devices that violated basic obligations.
Which was the first country to withdraw from the NPT in 2003?
Following the collapse of that agreement in 2002, North Korea announced on January 10, 2003 that, with only one day left of the previous three-month notice requirement for withdrawal from the NPT, its withdrawal would take effect a day later.
Why did North Korea back out of the NPT?
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) became a state party to the NPT in 1985, but announced in 2003 that it would no longer be bound by the treaty. Since then, negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program have not resolved the dispute between the DPRK and the international community.
Is France the only nuclear power in Europe?
More than half of the nuclear electricity in the EU is produced in just one country – France. 56 units operating in three non-EU countries (Russia, Ukraine and Switzerland) account for about 15-20% of electricity in the rest of Europe.
Who has the most nuclear power in Europe? Nuclear power plants operate in 32 countries and produce about a tenth of the world’s electricity. Most of them are in Europe, North America, East Asia and South Asia. The United States is the largest producer of nuclear energy, while France has the largest share of electricity generated by nuclear energy, around 70%.
Which European countries have nuclear power?
Highlights. Nuclear power plants produced about 25.2% of the total electricity produced in the EU in 2021. In 2021, 13 EU countries had operational nuclear reactors: Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia , Finland and Sweden.
Why does France use almost all nuclear energy?
France derives about 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy, due to a long-standing policy based on energy security. Government policy, set under the former administration in 2014, aimed to reduce nuclear’s share of electricity generation to 50% by 2025. This target was delayed in 2019 to 2035.
Why doesn’t Germany use nuclear power?
But after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011, Merkel suddenly announced the end of Germany’s atomic era. In July 2011, the Bundestag voted to shut down all nuclear reactors by December 31, 2022.