Will South Korea Develop its Own Nuclear Weapons Essay Example

  • Category: Asia, World,
  • Pages: 10
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  • Published: 10 November 2020
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North Korea conducted its first three nuclear weapons tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013.  In addition, it also conducted sporadic missile tests.  After 2014, however, North Korea dramatically increased the number of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests.  Since 2016, North Korea has conducted 31 missile tests and three nuclear weapons tests.  Two of those nuclear weapons tests occurred in 2016, and the yields of those tests have gotten progressively larger.   This uptick in North Korea’s weapons testing has brought increased international condemnation and reflects a more aggressive military posture than it did in previous years.  As a result, many, especially South Korea, are concerned about North Korea’s willingness to use nuclear weapons in an offensive manner.  Because of North Korea’s provocative missile and nuclear weapons testing, the idea that South Korea should become a nuclear weapon state to deter North Korea has gained traction.  

This paper will address the following question as it relates to nuclear proliferation: will South Korea develop its own nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s nuclear program and recent missile tests?  It concludes that South Korea is not likely to develop its own nuclear weapons because of the instability in the region that might accompany its nuclear weapon pursuit.

First, this paper will address the reasons why South Korea is not likely to develop its own nuclear weapons program.  Next, it will discuss reasons why South Korea could develop nuclear weapons.  Then, it will assess both sides of the debate by using Japan as a comparison case.  

Reasons Why South Korea is Not Likely to Develop its Own Nuclear Weapons 

In his book, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate, Scott Sagan argues that fewer nuclear weapons in the world will reduce the likelihood of a nuclear exchange.  This idea of nonproliferation directly contradicts Kenneth Waltz’s argument regarding the stability to occur because of nuclear proliferation.  Waltz argues that if two states in a contentious relationship both acquire nuclear weapons and a secure second strike capability, the likelihood of nuclear war will be lessened, and the relationship will become more stable.   The problem with Waltz’s argument is that he based it on the condition of a bipolar world where two superpowers acquired enough nuclear weapons to ensure mutually assured destruction should one decide to attack the other with a nuclear weapon.  Waltz’s logic should not be applied to the situation on the Korean peninsula.  Neither North Korea nor South Korea are considered superpowers, but both can impact regional powers’ decisions to pursue nuclear weapons.

One reason that South Korea is not likely to develop nuclear weapons is that it is a signatory and ratifying state of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The idea behind the NPT is that the spread of nuclear weapons is bad for international relations because nuclear weapon proliferation increases the likelihood of a nuclear war.  Therefore, preventing such spread through international consensus will reduce the potential of a nuclear exchange.  There are two consequences of getting states to sign a document with this idea in mind: 1) it makes non-proliferation a legal issue and 2) it creates a norm in the international community around nonproliferation.  By signing and ratifying the NPT, South Korea is willing to accept a legal restraint and it is signaling to the international community that it does not intend to pursue nuclear weapons.  Through this action, South Korea submits to the idea that the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is a stabilizing force in international politics.

The NPT’s withdrawal clause and its procedures might signify an upcoming instability scenario.  Article X requires a state to submit a rationale for wanting to withdraw from the treaty.  Any state wishing to withdraw must give a 3 month notice of its intent to withdraw and a statement addressed to the 190 members of the United Nations including the U.N. Security Council indicating the state is experiencing extraordinary events that jeopardize its supreme interests.  Should South Korea opt to withdraw from the NPT, its notice to the United Nations could cause alarm for North Korea’s government, raise tensions between the two Koreas, and increase the risk of a pre-emptive North Korean attack on South Korea.  North Korea could then claim its attack prevented South Korea from using its nuclear weapons in an aggressive manner.

One concern is the consequences that might follow a South Korean NPT withdrawal. If South Korea, a ratifying member of the NPT, pursues nuclear weapons, then Japan, which faces similar threats of violence from North Korea, might forgo its own commitments to the NPT and pursue its own nuclear weapons program.  By South Korea opting not to pursue its own nuclear weapons, it is not only signaling its adherence to and faith in an international treaty, it is also signaling to other regional powers that they should adhere to the NPT in order to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation and regional instability.  Through non-proliferation efforts, South Korea is aiming to reduce the likelihood of raising tensions with North Korea (and decreasing regional stability) and thus decreasing the likelihood that North Korea will use nuclear weapons in an aggressive or self-defensive manner.

Another major factor as to why South Korea does not develop nuclear weapons to deter North Korean aggression is South Korea’s alliance with the United States.  Developing nuclear weapons is costly to a state and potentially destabilizing to a region, so if an ally can act as a credible deterrent (i.e. the ally has the manpower and/or technological capability to deter an aggressive neighbor and the willingness to deploy that deterrent force), then it makes sense to use the ally to aid in protecting another state.  As part of the alliance, some 20,000+ U.S. troops are stationed on the northern parts of South Korea and along the Demilitarized Zone to act as a tripwire should a North Korean military strike occur.  The deaths of U.S. soldiers would trigger a heavy response from the United States against North Korea.  

Part of the U.S.-South Korean alliance is the extension of the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella to include the southern peninsular state.  The U.S. first deployed some of its tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958, giving credibility to its nuclear umbrella claim.  In 1991, the U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons, but kept some of its troops in the country.  Terrence Roehrig, author of Japan, South Korea, and the United States Nuclear Umbrella, details the continued assurances given by U.S. policy makers to keep South Korea under its nuclear umbrella.   To date, those assurances are still in place, demonstrating the extent to which the U.S. will go to prevent the escalation of tensions into a violent conflict.  The presence of U.S. troops and the coverage provided by the U.S. nuclear umbrella lend credence to Sagan’s argument that fewer states possessing nuclear weapons provides for a more stable relationship between states, especially since there has been a lack of major conflict between North and South Korea while the alliance has been in place. 

A final reason to believe that South Korea will not pursue developing or possessing nuclear weapons comes from a statement made by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to the South Korean National Assembly in November 2017.  In no uncertain terms, President Moon Jae-in stated: “Under the denuclearization declaration, jointly made by the South and the North, giving North Korea the status of a nuclear state cannot be countenanced nor accepted. Neither will we (South Korea) develop nor possess nuclear weapons.”   The declaration cited by the president is the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, signed by both states in 1992.  This is important because it demonstrates two things: 1) despite North Korea’s nuclear weapon testing, President Moon Jae-in is continuing and reaffirming South Korea’s no nuclear weapon policy that has been in place since the early 1990’s, and 2) President Moon is rejecting the idea that possessing nuclear weapons would increase regional stability.

Reasons Why South Korea Could Develop its Own Nuclear Weapons

Although there are a few reasons why South Korea will likely remain a non-nuclear state, there are other reasons South Korea might pursue nuclear weapons instead. The first of which is the security argument. If a state wants to ensure its own survival, it should take any measures it can to deter other states from aggressing against it.  States pursue military power for security and thus survival. This is the basis of the Realist perspective of international politics and reason to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a neighboring state’s provocative behavior.  Waltz argues that stability is far more likely among states with serious disagreements if those states have nuclear weapons.   Stability in this case stems from the following: the nuclear playing field is known among states, that the playing field is roughly even in terms of nuclear weapon numbers and capabilities (including a secure second strike), the fact that states can cause and incur massive damage should other states present a challenge to their security interests, and since states are portrayed as rational actors, they will seek to avoid a damaging nuclear exchange with other states. The knowledge that North Korea is testing nuclear weapons might give South Korea reason to pursue its own nuclear weapons because that would balance the playing field and stabilize the relationship between the two Koreas. 

Another reason why South Korea could develop nuclear weapons is the U.S.-South Korea 123 Agreement and the potential nuclear weapons capabilities that resulted from it.  Deriving its name from section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, this Agreement’s purpose is meant to facilitate non-nuclear weapons states’ pursuit of nuclear energy development through cooperation and technology transfers with the United States.  To adhere to the 123 Agreement, South Korea cannot use the material or technology received from the U.S. to develop a nuclear weapon.  Nor can South Korea enrich Uranium or reprocess spent fuel rods to produce Plutonium even though it has those capabilities.  The Agreement also mandates that International Atomic Energy Agency’s nuclear safeguards be in place at all nuclear facilities, and thus the agreeing state accepts submitting itself to transparency in its nuclear energy pursuits.   

However, given that South Korea’s physical security is threatened by North Korea’s nuclear and delivery vehicle tests as well as the relative ease of enriching nuclear material to the point where it is considered “weapons grade,” South Korea might turn against the terms of the Agreement.   It is not inconceivable to think that South Korea would use the nuclear resources gained from the U.S.-South Korea 123 Agreement to pursue a nuclear weapons program. This is significant because South Korea currently has 24 nuclear reactors and gets one-third of its energy from nuclear power, meaning it has the resources and capabilities to enrich nuclear material to the point of it being “weapons grade” should it choose to renege on the conditions stated in the 123 Agreement.   

Finally, there is a domestic call for nuclear weapons among the South Korean populace.  As recent as September 2017, nearly 60% of South Koreans want South Korea to have its own nuclear weapons, according to a Gallup Korea poll and reported by the Korea Times. This level of support reflects another poll taken in August 2017 showing that opposition party officials – those from the Saenuri (Liberty Korea) Party - are also calling for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons.   When compared to the statements made by President Moon, these calls for nuclear weapons among the South Korean general population and the opposition party officials show the contested nature of nuclear weapons development within South Korea.  It is not impossible to imagine that if the Saenuri Party gains power and/or is elected to the presidency in its next election, there could be a bigger push for nuclear weapons development. 

Basis of Judgement

The following section will look at Japan’s decision to not develop nuclear weapons.  It will assess Japan’s similarities and differences with relation to the situation in South Korea to determine the most likely reason that it chose to not pursue nuclear weapons.  It may not be a perfect barometer for determining the likelihood of South Korea’s choice on the nuclear weapon question, but not many other nations face similar situations where their neighbors are conducting nuclear and delivery vehicle tests. 

Like South Korea, U.S. troops are stationed on Japanese soil as an assurance to the Japanese government that the U.S. will protect Japan from aggressive regional neighbors.  Like South Korea, Japan faces nuclear threats from North Korea, and like South Korea, the United States keeps Japan under its nuclear umbrella.  Japan is also a signatory and ratifying member of the NPT and therefore is signaling to the rest of the world its intentions of not developing nuclear weapons.  Japan demonstrates its adherence to the idea that nonproliferation will lead to stability in the region.  Japan is part of a 123 Agreement with the United States to develop its nuclear energy sector.  A difference though, is that Japan’s constitution, formulated jointly with the United States after World War II, restricts Japan from maintaining an offensive military force.  What then, would indicate that South Korea will continue to be a non-nuclear state when considering the case for Japan?

Sagan’s argument regarding nuclear non-proliferation plays a big role.  North Korea, perceiving itself as needing nuclear weapons to be considered a regional power and a means of survival, might view Japan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as a challenge to its security.  In this case, Japan could potentially increase the likelihood of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, or at least a violent conflict, were it to pursue nuclear weapons.  As a signatory to the NPT, Japan would have to submit notice of its intentions to leave the NPT if it wanted to pursue a nuclear weapons program.  Again, this would signal to North Korea a potential challenge to its security and survival.  Avoiding that scenario means not building a nuclear weapon.  Thus, Japan could see a stable, non-violent relationship with North Korea were it to find Sagan’s rationale more compelling than Waltz.  

An alternative, and possibly just as significant, reason Japan does not seek nuclear weapons is its commitment to 3 non-nuclear principles established in 1967.  The three principles are that Japan will not develop, possess, or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons to its territory.  These three principles are non-negotiable and are a major contributing factor to Japan’s national identity.   In fact, even after North Korea conducts nuclear weapons and missile tests, there is still overwhelming support for the 3 non-proliferation principles – close to 80% of people surveyed said they still want Japan to remain a non-nuclear state.   Adherence to the 3 principles is a source of pride for Japan, something that allows its people and government to associate with a nonproliferation norm. 

South Korea cannot lay claim to similar principles because it permitted the U.S. to station nuclear weapons on its soil for 33 years. However, both Japan and South Korea recognize the potential for instability in the region should either one of them pursue nuclear weapons.  Although Waltz’ argument might be appropriate for two states with enough nuclear weapons to ensure mutually assured destruction, his argument does not hold up when smaller states without the ability to destroy each other pursue their own nuclear arsenals.  The presence of a strong ally with both troops and nuclear umbrella assurances also provide reasons to not pursue nuclear weapons.  While it is possible that South Korea loses all confidence in the U.S. deterrent, the fact remains that South Korea is still reliant upon it for its stabilizing effect on the region.  Ultimately, South Korea cannot risk the potential for a more tense relationship with North Korea by seeking a nuclear weapon. 

Works Cited

Davenport, Kelsey. “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.” Arms Control Association. 9 March 2018. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron#2016 Accessed 24 March 2018

Sagan, Scott and Kenneth Waltz. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate. 2013

Roehrig, Terrence. “South Korea and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella.” Japan, South Korea and the United States Nuclear Umbrella. pp. 125-128. Columbia University Press, 2017.

He-suk, Choi. “Moon says no nukes in South Korea.” The Korea Times. 1 November 2017.  http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20171101000973 Accessed 4 April 2018. 

Sagan, Scott and Kenneth Waltz. “More May Be Better.” The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate.  2012

Kimball, Daryl. “The U.S. Atomic Energy Act Section 123 at a Glance.” Arms Control Association. February 2018 https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/AEASection123  Accessed 31 March 2018

“Uranium Enrichment.” World Nuclear Association. December 2017. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/conversion-enrichment-and-fabrication/uranium-enrichment.aspx Accessed 26 March 2018

“Nuclear power in South Korea.” World Nuclear Association.  December 2017.  http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/south-korea.aspx  Accessed 25 March 2018

Si-soo, Park. “60% of people support South Korea’s armament: poll.” The Korea Times. 9 September 2017. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/09/205_236182.html Accessed 8 April 2018.

Harris, Bryan. “South Korean opposition party calls for nuclear armament.” Financial Times. 14 August 2017.  https://www.ft.com/content/030b21da-80af-11e7-a4ce-15b2513cb3ff Accessed 8 April 2017

Mochizuki, Mike. “Three reasons why Japan will likely continue to reject nuclear weapons.” The Washington Post. 6 November 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/11/06/japan-is-likely-to-retain-its-non-nuclear-principles-heres-why/?utm_term=.b23c7b29c71d Accessed 8 April 2018