Why South Korea must see going nuclear as a non-starter

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol left nothing to the imagination regarding the country’s stance on nuclear proliferation earlier this month. In an interview with KBS, he called nuclear proliferation “not realistic” and said developing nuclear weapons at the moment might result in economic woes for South Korea.

However, Yoon hinted at the country’s high level of nuclear latency, saying that “it would not take long to develop nuclear weapons if the country put its mind to it”. In doing so, he gave form to an issue gaining prominence.

Frequent missile tests by North Korea since last year have raised concerns around the world, particularly in South Korea, where calls for nuclear armament are gaining momentum. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s comments about war being a “reality and not an abstract concept”, at a plenary session of the Workers’ Party of Korea last December, only solidified these concerns.

Concerned by the dramatic developments on the Korean peninsula, some South Korean analysts have raised concerns about the United States’ security commitments. In an indication of waning faith in the US nuclear umbrella, activists have called for the country to secure its own nuclear capabilities to counter the North Korean threat while arguing against relying solely on the goodwill of allies.

A possible change of administration in this year’s US presidential election is also a cause for concern. In an analysis for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Korea chair Victor Cha and associate fellow Andy Lim argue that victory for Donald Trump could result in a decrease in North Korean provocations but could also lead to an increase in South Korean support for acquiring its own nuclear weapons.

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Seoul Mayor says South Korea should build nuclear weapons in the face of threats from the North

Seoul Mayor says South Korea should build nuclear weapons in the face of threats from the North

Sun Sang-mok, president of the International Council on Social Welfare, similarly argues that a Trump victory could pave the way for an agreement between Washington and Seoul on South Korea’s nuclear armament. These sentiments have garnered popularity among the public. According to a survey by Gallup Korea, 72.8 per cent of South Korean respondents believe the country must develop its own nuclear weapons, down about 4 per cent since last year.

However, considering the growing cooperation with Washington, and the establishment of a nuclear consultative group last year, the figure indicates that efforts have so far failed to mitigate threats. More than 60 per cent of respondents said they did not believe the US would use the nuclear deterrent in the event of an emergency on the Korean peninsula.

While concerns and anxieties have made nuclear proliferation seem like a viable route, the feasibility of South Korea pursuing the nuclear option appears to have avoided rigorous scrutiny. Given the complex security dynamics of Northeast Asia, the road to acquiring nuclear weapons would be a rocky one.

While South Korea is among the leading exporters of nuclear energy technology, its civil nuclear programme depends on imports and enrichment services from other countries. This dependence is an impediment to the possibility of an indigenous nuclear proliferation programme as any move towards this could be curtailed by trade sanctions.

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Children play in the ocean near Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant in Gyeongju, South Korea, on August 21. South Korea’s civil nuclear programme depends on imports and enrichment services from other countries. Photo: Reuters

Still, supposing that South Korea was successful in repurposing its civilian reactors to produce weapons-grade plutonium, the consequences of such an act could be devastating. It could strain relations between Seoul and Washington, for starters. While South Korea is an important US ally, nuclear armament would severely test the trust and cooperation between them.

Sanctions could follow, which would have a disastrous effect on the export-led South Korean economy. It is also possible that the US could withdraw its nuclear umbrella. Such a move, in the absence of a credible indigenous nuclear deterrent, would jeopardise South Korea’s security.

An emerging nuclear proliferation programme would also lead North Korea to bolster its nuclear arsenal, further hardening its shell and nipping in the bud all possibilities of denuclearisation. In such a scenario, Pyongyang would also look to strengthen its ties with Russia and China against South Korea.

Beijing would probably impose its own set of sanctions on South Korea. This would have severe consequences for the latter’s economy, much like in the aftermath of the sanctions Beijing imposed on Seoul over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system.

Why nuclear weapons should never be an option for South Korea

Yoon is aware of the potential consequences of Seoul’s nuclear armament. His statement indicated the lack of feasibility in acquiring nuclear weapons at present because of the backlash the country could face. His comments must then be understood as a way of signalling to both North Korea and the US with regard to the current developments on the Korean peninsula.

Seoul wants to deter Pyongyang and spur Washington into action by hinting at the possibility of an indigenous nuclear programme. It is clear that the current policy employed by the US and its allies to counter growing security threats in the region has not produced the desired results.

Pyongyang’s growing belligerence has made securing nuclear weapons an attractive prospect for Seoul. However, given the potential consequences, South Korea must realise that such an option would only jeopardise its security and harm its image as a responsible actor in the international realm.

The US, on the other hand, must realise that the current policy to mitigate threats has failed and look towards diplomacy and dialogue while collaborating closely with its allies to solve the conundrum in which South Korea finds itself.

Gagan Hitkari is a PhD candidate at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India. He is also a non-resident James A. Kelly Korea fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii, US

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