Possible nuke redeployment in South Korea generates firestorm in China
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING — The already controversial idea that the United States should consider redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, amid growing concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, is also generating a firestorm of repercussions from China, which fears a nuclear race in East Asia.
“China must prevent South Korea from gong nuclear,” said the title of the China Strategy Network website.
“Very dangerous! South Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons,” read Xilu.com.
The popular tabloid, the Global Times, has a special section devoted to the topic. It also ran a poll. One of the questions asked was: “Do you think redeploying nuclear weapons to South Korea will benefit or harm it more?”
An overwhelming 84.8% of Chinese respondents said Friday it would do more harm to South Korea.
The newspaper characterized the idea of “using nukes to check nukes,” advocated by some South Korean lawmakers, as “gambling,” adding “there were already enough ‘wars of nerves’ played by the two Koreas” recently.
Chinese security analysts contacted by The Korea Times, said China strongly opposes the idea. “China will not just voice a concern, but a very strong objection to this idea,” said Xie Tao, an international relations expert at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Piao Jianyi, a Korea expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, was more blunt: “That would amount to meaning that South Korea is not going to pursue a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Now, I have a hard time understanding the Lee Myung-bak administration.”
In East Asia, the United States offers a nuclear umbrella to South Korea and Japan, while the latter two countries themselves don’t own nukes. “This is quite different from having actual nuclear weapons in South Korea or Japan,” said Xie.
Chinese analysts fear that South Korea’s having a nuclear arsenals will unleash a domino effect in the region, as Japan will also want to join the nuclear race. “That’s the last thing either the United States or China wants to see,” said Xie.
Other Chinese scholars agree. “China will be very unhappy about it,” said Yu Yingli, a security expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
Some critics say China is also partly responsible for the situation, arguing that South Korea’s renewed interest in tactical nuclear weapons, withdrawn two decades ago, is because China is not doing enough to push North Korea to give up its nukes. They also argue that China is likely to resort to tacitly accepting North Korea as a nuclear country when its “gentle prodding” loses steam.
“Although it will make China unhappy, that may be the only choice left,” said Han Suk-hee, an expert on Korea-China relations at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Yu rejects the view, saying China doesn’t want to see North Korea armed with nuclear weapons either, arguing that China also finds North Korea tricky to deal with in its wayward and ballooning nuclear ambition.
Xie agreed, “The North Koreans are very clever. They built nuclear facilities along the Chinese-North Korean borders. So, in the case the U.S. launches airstrikes at these facilities, that means it will bring a war to China.”
On Thursday Washington confirmed there has been no change in its position on non-proliferation, saying it has no plans to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. But some pockets of South Korea’s public opinion, including newspaper editorials, strongly advocate such an option.
“I don’t think South Korea will go ahead with the idea because, as far as I know, there are different opinions there,” said Yu.
Xie foresees another ominous outcome of a possible reintroduction of tactical nukes to South Korea, besides the nuclear arms race. “If this indeed happens, I think the whole six-party talks will collapse,” he said. China promotes the six-party talks as the best option to deal with the North’s nuclear weapons program. “China’s goal in the whole six-party talks and in East Asian strategy in general is to have a nuclear-free region,” Xie said.
Han views it as time for the North to make a wise choice. “For North Korea, it may have to choose either giving up nukes or seeing another nuclear Korea across the DMZ,” he said.
The Global Times said South Korea and the U.S. are in fact publically floating the idea with the two audiences in mind. Firstly, it is to pressure North Korea to scrap its nuclear activities, but secondly, also to force China to do more in pressuring North Korea “into action,” such as in its implementation of U.N. sanctions on North Korea.