What South Korea Can Learn from South Asia’s Nuclear Experience
Image Credit: REUTERS/Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation/DRDO/Handout

What South Korea Can Learn from South Asia’s Nuclear Experience


India and Pakistan are again at loggerheads, with five Indian soldiers and two Pakistani soldiers were killed on the Line of Control (LOC) in the disputed Kashmir region earlier this month. Since then, the LOC has seen a rapid escalation in cross border exchanges of fire, bringing the sustainability of the 2003 cease fire agreement between the two neighbors into doubt. Earlier, in January, India had accused Pakistani Special Forces of killing two Indian soldiers, claiming one of them was beheaded. These provocations come as progress is stalled in the prosecution of the alleged Pakistan-based masterminds of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. New Delhi remains unable to influence Islamabad’s policy on state-sponsored terrorism, despite the presence of nuclear arsenals in South Asia since the 1990s.

Something similar is visible on the Korean Peninsula. North Korean provocations have persisted since its first nuclear weapon test in 2006. Seoul, like New Delhi, has vacillated between diplomacy and military threats to no avail. South Korea’s current state of strategic frustration has convinced some leaders in Seoul that their country needs an indigenous nuclear capability. In the lead-up to President Park Geun-Hye’s inauguration, members of her own Saenuri Party encouraged a nuclear build-up. Rep. Shim Jae-Cheol argued the “only way to defend our survival would be to maintain a balance of terror that confronts nuclear with nuclear.” In June 2012, former Saenuri Party chairman and presidential candidate Chung Mong-Joon called for a “comprehensive re-examination of our security policy” that should give Seoul “the capability to possess” a nuclear arsenal. At a conference earlier this year in Washington, DC Chung leaned heavily on the U.S.-Soviet model: “The only thing that kept the Cold War cold was the mutual deterrence afforded by nuclear weapons…The lesson of the Cold War is that against nuclear weapons, only nuclear weapons can hold the peace.”

These proliferation optimists cite the U.S.-Soviet Cold War model of nuclear deterrence to claim that a South Korean nuclear arsenal would prevent future aggression. The experience of new nuclear weapon states in South Asia, however, suggests that South Korean nuclear weapons will not prove tremendously helpful to this end.

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The South Asian Nuclear Instability

India and Pakistan have fought four major wars since independence, including hostilities even after openly attaining nuclear weapons in 1998. The Line of Control in Kashmir remains tense to this day with Pakistan-based terrorists operating in Indian-administered Kashmir for more than two decades. Pakistan’s revisionist motives in Kashmir and the deep-seated ideological divide between the two nations form the edifice of today’s India-Pakistan rivalry.

Several factors within Pakistan’s polity further aggravate animosity between the two nations, especially since nuclearization. First, Pakistan has historically been a garrison state: if all states have armies, Pakistan’s army has a state. Pakistani politics is dominated by the military, which derives legitimacy from its opposition to India. Second, Pakistan has been a conventionally weaker state vis-à-vis India’s military. Pakistan tried to initially offset this vulnerability by incorporating the element of risk and the cult of the offensive in its military doctrine. The major modern conflicts in South Asia were initiated by Pakistan. However, after a comprehensive defeat in 1971, Pakistan’s conventional inferiority prompted it to pursue nuclear weapons as well as sub-conventional warfare against India. Since 1989, Pakistan has supported insurgency in Kashmir and also other non-state actors in the region.

As Pakistan advanced its nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s, sub-conventional provocations and nuclear deterrence became intertwined in what Dr. S. Paul Kapur, professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, has called the instability-instability paradox. Contrary to the stability-instability paradox present during the U.S.-Soviet deterrent relationship where stability at the strategic nuclear level allowed instability for lower-intensityconflict in proxy theaters possible, Kapur writes that in South Asia: “ongoing violence has resulted from a significant possibility of sub-nuclear conflict escalating to the nuclear threshold. Thus, a substantial degree of instability at the strategic level has encouraged lower level South Asian violence.”

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