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

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

Those calling for South Korea to go nuclear should look at the India-Pakistan 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.

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.”

Pakistan relies on this paradox because as a conventionally weaker military power, it can only wage sub-conventional warfare against India’s vast military resources as long as the risk of nuclear escalation looms over the region. India, therefore, typically eschews larger-scale military options against Islamabad due to the fear of nuclear escalation. The instability-instability paradox was evident in several exchanges between India and Pakistan. A year after both sides tested nuclear devices, Pakistani troops in the garb of local insurgents occupied a large swath of Indian Territory in Kargil. New Delhi’s military response to wrestle back control was significantly more reserved than similar operations in 1965, due in large part to the threat of nuclear use by Pakistan. Further examples include after the 2001 attack on Indian parliament, the 2008 carnage in Mumbai, and recent border skirmishes in Kashmir. The presence of nuclear weapons in South Asia has not eliminated the risk of provocations and conflict. Nuclear proliferation optimists should expect no different if both sides of the 38th parallel go nuclear.

The Korean Peninsula Experience

The limitations of applying Cold War nuclear logic to the Koreas are now apparent. South Korea’s security concerns and grievances against North Korea are serious, but a ROK nuclear arsenal would be unlikely to prevent future sub-conventional provocations and will face the same challenges present in South Asia’s uneasy peace.

Nuclear proliferation optimists in South Korea point to a series of North Korean provocations to justify their position. Pyongyang tested nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009, and 2013 and missile technology in 2008, 2009, and 2012. In March 2010, South Korea accused Pyongyang of torpedoing one of its naval vessels, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In November 2010, North Korea bombarded South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, striking both civilian and military targets with artillery shells and rockets, killing four and wounding nineteen. Cross border clashes in 2010 resulted in the deaths of two South Korean marines. Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently predicted “more nuclear and missile tests and/or other North Korean provocations sooner or later, because Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy and his prospects for survival may depend upon it.”

The DPRK depends on instability at the nuclear level to achieve its national ambitions. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared “we are no longer in a period of cyclical provocations [with North Korea] – where a provocation occurs and then there is a period of time when concessions are made…I think we are in a period of prolonged provocations.” North Korean leaders cultivate an image of irrational decision-making to convince the world that they have the will to move up the escalatory ladder to full-scale conventional or possibly even nuclear war.

Regular provocations are central to North Korea’s deterrent strategy. As U.S. Navy (Ret.) Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt explained, provocations “reinforce the credibility of North Korea’s conventional deterrent by demonstrating a political willingness to risk war.” Threatening “unacceptable consequences on South Korea” through its artillery pieces and long-range rockets is the primary method the DPRK uses to deter the U.S.-ROK alliance. Instability at the nuclear level is essential to this strategy since it further constrains allied responses. If Seoul procures its own nuclear arsenal, as it considered during the 1970s, it is unlikely that Pyongyang would abandon sub-conventional provocations necessary for its overall national security strategy.

Applying Nuclear Lessons from South Asia

The South Asian case is well suited for the Korean Peninsula. First, both South Asia and the Koreas represent a conflict dyad where one state is a status-quo power (India, South Korea) and the other revisionist (Pakistan, North Korea). If Pakistan wants to assimilate Kashmir from a rather satisfied India, North Korean goals have ranged from uniting the peninsula under its leadership to reversing South Korea’s dominance in the region. Second, both Pakistan and North Korea have dovetailed brinksmanship into their respective conventional and nuclear strategies. On the other hand, India and South Korea practice strategic restraint in dealing with their neighbors. Third, conflicting states have divergent identities in both cases. If Pakistan professes to be a Muslim state vis-à-vis the secular but Hindu-majority India, North Korea prides itself on its Junche/communist identity against the liberal democratic South Korea. Fourth, compared to India and South Korea, decision-making in both Pakistan and North Korea is concentrated in fewer hands, which derive much of their legitimacy from opposition to an outside force (Pakistan-India, DPRK-ROK/U.S.). Lastly, both Pakistan and North Korea are weaker states in terms of conventional firepower. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was a revisionist power with a massive conventional force, the revisionist tendencies of Pakistan and North Korea, both conventionally weaker states, require instability at the strategic nuclear level to provoke without prompting retaliation.

Therefore, the South Asian conflict dyad portends a grim future for a possible nuclear South Korea since provocations would likely continue. Whatever Seoul may hope to gain in deterrence benefits, may be outweighed by loss of international standing and security. In addition, unlike South Asia where the United States may try to serve as neutral intermediary during a crisis, Washington is an active party to the conflict in the Koreas due to troop deployments in ROK and its formal security alliance. The worry that instability at the conventional level will cause instability at the nuclear level to escalate motivates the United States to press for calm and an end to hostilities – including retaliation – after a provocation before the attacked party has a chance to respond. Seoul could expect similar pressure should North Korean provocations occur against a nuclear-armed South.

The U.S. nuclear umbrella aims to provide South Korea with a measure of protection against DPRK aggression that neither Pakistan nor India enjoys. North Korean leaders must calculate the willingness of the United States to respond with its nuclear stockpile should Pyongyang attack South Korea with nuclear or large-scale conventional forces. North Korea still chooses to engage in a range of provocations – short of full-scale invasion or nuclear weapon use – despite this umbrella. The experience of India under the instability-instability paradox demonstrates that Seoul should not expect for DPRK provocations to radically diminish simply because nuclear bombs in the region have South Korean flags painted on the side.


The historian and Oxford University professor Margaret MacMillan warned in her book Dangerous Games that “analogies from history must, of course, be treated with care. Using the wrong one not only can present an oversimplified picture of a complex situation in the present but can lead to wrong decisions.” While analogies are difficult to establish and the variations in context may lead to spurious comparisons, nuclear behavior on the Korean Peninsula can be better explained by trends in South Asia rather than the Cold War. As South Korea weighs whether to join the nuclear armed club, the antagonistic experience of new nuclear states in South Asia – not the more optimistic U.S.-Soviet model – should feature most prominently in those debates.

Timothy Westmyer is a research and program assistant working on nuclear debates in Asia at the Rising Powers Initiative within the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University. Yogesh Joshi is a Ph.D candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University and was recent visiting scholar at the Sigur Center.