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South Korea’s Nuclear Temptation

Should South Korea develop its own nuclear weapons capability?

South Korea’s Nuclear Temptation
Credit: Kyodo, Reuters

In the last three months, North Korea has tested two rocket technologies and a nuclear weapon. After many previous such tests, it is now increasingly apparent that North Korea has no intention of slowing its buildup, much less denuclearizing. While there are some actions which might help mitigate this buildup – missile defense, further sanctions, coordinated pressure on China, decentralization and civil defense in South Korea – the temptation for South Korea to build its own nuclear weapons is growing. Although this is South Korea’s sovereign right, I will argue here that Southern nuclearization is unnecessary. In any contingency where North Korea actually used a nuclear weapon, the entire world, including China and Russia, would immediately assent to the regime’s elimination. South Korea and the United States would invade North Korea forthwith and eventually win. Therefore, any nuclear strike on North Korea by the South (or the U.S.) would suddenly become unified (South) Korea’s responsibility to clean up.

The Strategic Situation

In January, North Korea tested a fourth nuclear device; in February, it launched a multi-stage rocket. It claimed this was to place a satellite in orbit, but the nearly universal response from outside analysts is that this was yet another step in the development of ballistic missile technology. North Korea appears intent on developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Already, North Korea can probably strike regional capitals with a nuclear weapon – Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing (yes, Beijing – the nuclear program serves to reinforce Pyongyang’s autonomy against its patron). An ICBM would open up North America and Australia to the Northern threat.