Why South Korea is Eyeing Nukes
Image Credit: US Army

Why South Korea is Eyeing Nukes


Comments by influential South Koreans that their country should consider requesting the return of US nuclear weapons to their shores—or even acquire its own nuclear weapons—reflects persistent unease about how regional security developments are challenging US extended security guarantees developed during the Cold War.

In the case of South Korea, the United States pledged through a bilateral mutual defence treaty to help defend the country from an external attack, presumably from North Korea, with nuclear weapons if necessary. The deployment of sizeable US conventional forces in South Korea was aimed at making these extended security guarantees more credible.

The effectiveness of deterrence is difficult to prove, since by definition nothing happens. If a country is deterred from attacking, it is a non-event. Sceptics can plausibly argue that perhaps the presumed aggressor never intended to attack, or at least refrained from the assault for other reasons. Still, the North Korean invasion of the South was never repeated, perhaps due to US threats to retaliate—something that was lacking before June 1950.

Extended deterrence is a function of capacity, will, and perception. It requires that the guarantor has the capacity to defend another country under attack as well as the intent to do so, and this capacity-will combination must be perceived by the target as sufficiently strong that the potential aggressor decides to refrain.

In addition to deterring a potential aggressor through threats of retaliation, a deterrence pledge also involves an assurance dimension. The state receiving the guarantee must perceive it as credible given the guarantor’s capacity and will. Otherwise, it will seek to appease the potential aggressor—or balance the threat through unilateral action.

In the case of South Korea, the means of unilateral balancing under consideration has extended to include nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the United States stationed hundreds of nuclear weapons there. At times, early South Korean governments contemplated and even started nuclear weapons programmes.

The Cold War has ended, and the Pentagon removed all US nuclear weapons from South Korea two decades ago. But the commitment to defend the country with nuclear weapons if necessary is still seen as essential to keep South Koreans from losing faith in the US willingness or capacity to defend them.

In one of his last public speeches in Asia before leaving office, then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged to participants at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that several developments relating to North Korea were making the East Asian strategic environment more dangerous.

First, North Korea’s indiscriminate selling of items useful for making nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles was destabilizing ‘the entire region.’ Second, the US homeland was for the first time becoming vulnerable to a direct North Korean attack. Gates related that he and President Barack Obama had told Chinese leaders several times that North Korea’s continued progress in developing long-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads was becoming a ‘direct threat to the United States.’

In addition, the risks had increased that any further North Korean provocations against South Korea would rapidly escalate into an armed confrontation between the two parties. Gates also warned that North Korea’s outrageous provocations against the South last year—sinking the Cheonan and shelling civilians on a border island—had so roused South Korean opinion that vigorous retaliation to any further provocations was much more likely. ‘And one of the worries we have dealt with over the last seven or eight months, both with our friends in the Republic of Korea and also in our dialogues with our Chinese friends and other members of the Group of Six is the danger of unpredictable escalation in the event of another provocation,’ he noted.

Stop the insanity
March 12, 2013 at 14:46

"However, US is probably wise to discourage South Korean’s nuclear impulse. otherwise it is hard to persuade North Korean giving up its nuclear weapons."

North Korea developed nuclear weapons despite the South's not having them, so your argument is disingenuous. The Chinese are truly mental midgets to think that their race won't be exterminated if they attempt to use a proxy state to wage nuclear war on the United States. This scenario has been war-gamed for decades by the Pentagon and it always leads to Armaggedon. There is no such thing as a limited nuclear war, and any attack by North Korea will be seen as a proxy attack from its enabler, China.

Armchair Pundit Hater
March 12, 2013 at 14:29

You live in a cowardly fantasy world and are incredibly ignorant about the Korean situation and history in general. More importantly, your condescending tone demonstrates your know-it-all arrogance towards your fellow man. Yes, wars seem terrible and pointless, but the fact that they occur is proof that violence is a force of evolution that cannot simply be argued away. Moreover, those wars were started and waged by men smarter than you could ever hope to be. It takes brains to kill millions of people who are trying their best not to be killed. As cynical as it may sound, the political map of the world today is stark testament to the power of violence to define the landscape.

And all of your suggestions of infiltration, radio broadcasts, and what not have been tried and are continuing to be tried, but they have not accomplished anything. Commerce? Are you kidding me? Do you not understand what the Iron Curtain was or how Stalinist regimes operate? Do you believe North Koreans are simply wayward global citizens who just need to "loosen up"? Tell you what, I will buy you a plane ticket to the DMZ so that you can stroll across the border that we insecure Free-Worlders refuse to cross to tell those North Koreans that their government is lying to them and that they just need to open their eyes to the rest of the world. Jeez, why didn't half-a-century's-worth of world citizens think of trying that?

By the way, the ticket will be one way since I don't see the point of bringing your body back home, especially if it's been stripped of its organs.

[...] “The only way to defend our survival would be to maintain a balance of terror that confronts nuclear with nuclear,” said Representative Shim Jae-cheol at a National Assembly meeting, before recommending the redeployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs) to his country. Meanwhile other officials have recommended an independent South Korean nuclear deterrent. [...]

ed hong
January 16, 2012 at 19:53

Oh my god, a non propaganda and thoughtful response from yang zi! I thought I would never see the day!

mamush daniel
August 22, 2011 at 16:51

Don’t worry, once the warmonger US politicians push S.K. to the fire you will see what happens next, but before that the S.K. horse like government may remove the US warmongers and homo sexual Christian CIA chickens buddies way from its back and……. then … S.K. + N.K. = 1K = Peace.

July 31, 2011 at 10:37

That nuclear weapons are even still an option on the table is reprehensible.

That the U.S., a country with a nearly all-powerful army (when not mired in pointless wars) would be troubled by the meager nuclear ambitions of a soon to fail dictatorship shows the miserable psychological insecurities that they and the world has over their own neighbors.

South Korea should not develop nuclear weapons. They should seek to infiltrate North Korean society more. More radio broadcasts. More efforts at commerce at a small level – tourism, border markets. Anything to instill a sense of self-determination in the peoples of North Korea. This will bring about change faster than any military deterrence could hope for.

To create a greater sense of threat will only allow the NK propaganda machines to scare and influence their population even more.

Also, while nuclear deterrence is often cited as preventing major conflicts between world superpowers, it really only shifted the wars to proxy wars fought on poorer countries soil.

If I were SK, I would worry more about NK destabilizing and having a flood of millions trying to leave the country. This is a far bigger threat than any military offensive NK has.

July 30, 2011 at 03:46

That is where you are wrong. The United States backed up its word in the conflict with NoKor. It send in troops and lead the UN Forces from turning the tide instead of only having Busan it pushed the NoKor troops up to the boarder with China. If China did not intervene then the Korean Peninsula could have been united now.

Kha Nguyen
July 29, 2011 at 08:41

It’s clear that South Korea and Japan also should develop their own nukes, as their potential foes – North Korea and China – already have. Relying on the US has a price, and South Vietnam is a good example for the South Korean and Japanese to look at.

July 29, 2011 at 04:47

@Krypter. From another view, the world would be nicely balance by 2 new Asian nuclear powers, Japan & Korea, against UK & France. India vs Pakistan. US vs China. Russia is the wild card !!

Buck O'Fama
July 28, 2011 at 00:12

It would be nice to see the USA withdraw from the NPT. That way we could sell nukes to S, Korea, Tiawan, Poland, Georgia, Etc.. A Dozen GLCM’s with 400 Kt. warheads would have cause Russia to reconsider their invasion. The ROC having a SLBM or 3 with Mirv’d 200 Kt. warheads would sure give the Chi-Coms pause.
Both sides having nukes is a stand-off. One side having nukes is a prescription for War.
So far the USA acting as the Cops has kept the Wars from starting. Those days are fast drawing to a close. America is running out of will AND money. No other nation is capable of acting as the police. The power vacuum left by Americas withdrawal will be filled by the Nations most willing to use their nukes.
That is why Iran is hard at work on theirs. So if we sell a dozen or so to KSA, that will give the Mad Dog Mullahs (MDM) something to think about. The MDM knows Israel and the USA will not first strike them. Who knows what the KSA will do?

July 27, 2011 at 23:15

China has allowed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, and so the US should allow South Korea to develop nuclear weapons as well. South Korea is a rich country and shouldn’t rely so heavily on the USA for its security, especially since “rolling back communism” is no longer necessary. What’s necessary is a balance of deterrence in East Asia, and that would be provided most easily by letting South Korea and Japan arm themselves with nuclear weapons. For China and North Korea, the costs of bullying or invading their democratic neighbours would rise astronomically.

yang zi
July 27, 2011 at 22:21

China should not worry nuclear weapons in South Korean or Japan. The proximity of these countries made sure these weapons are not used, if it ever used against China, it would mean the end of South Korean and Japan.

France and Britten both have nuclear weapons, they are at peace!

However, US is probably wise to discourage South Korean’s nuclear impulse. otherwise it is hard to persuade North Korean giving up its nuclear weapons.

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