Posted : 2013-02-14 19:50
Updated : 2013-02-14 19:50

An itch to go nuclear

Cruise missiles are fired from the submerged 1,800-ton U214 Class ROK Navy submarine Son Won-il, left, and from a 4,400-ton KDX-II destroyer during ongoing navy drills. The missiles are capable of hitting any target within 1,500 kilometers. / Courtesy of ROK Navy

Latest NK test stirs calls for tit for tat

By Kim Tae-gyu

Chung Mong-joon
Hwang Woo-yea
Park Jie-won
Nuclear armament has been a taboo issue in South Korea but North Korea's third nuclear test is prodding a debate among politicians.

For now, calls for going head-to-head with Pyongyang have yet to reach the national narrative but the government may soon find itself having to respond to doubts about its ability to protect South Koreans against the North's nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

"At a time when the North is moving toward nuclear armament, we cannot sit idle against the mounting threat," Rep. Won Yoo-chul of the governing Saenuri Party said in a telephone interview with The Korea Times, Thursday.

"Under the condition that we will immediately scrap them if the North gives up its nuclear program, we need to develop our own nuclear weapons. It is not desirable to cause political tension but we must have the power to defend ourselves."

Rep. Chung Mong-joon, also of the conservative party, was more emphatic about the need to acquire nuclear arms.

"A gangster in the neighborhood snaps up a brand-new machine gun and it is absurd for us to try and defend our home with a pebble," the seven-term lawmaker, who once headed the ruling party, said on Wednesday. "We are required to persuade the United States with such a rationale."

Saenuri Party Chairman Hwang Woo-yea and Rep. Shim Jae-chul, a member of the party's Supreme Council, also agreed.

Park Jie-won, a former floor leader of the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), made his objections clear.

"It is absurd," Park said during a radio talk show about the idea of nuclear armament. "It would be the first step to turning the region into a warehouse for nuclear weapons."

Park served as a key aide to the late President Kim Dae-jung who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his "sunshine policy" of engaging the North, which has been discarded by the current government of President Lee Myung-bak, who resolved not to reward Pyongyangrogue behavior.

President-elect Park Geun-hye is expected to follow President Lee's policy of reciprocity by and large but with a greater deal of flexibility with the goal of achieving a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

However, with the North on the threshold of becoming a nuclear state, Park is expected to be challenged to persuade a skeptical nation into buying the old idea of the guarantee of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The President-elect is the eldest daughter of former strongman Park Chung-hee, who once announced the country's willingness to develop nuclear arms in the 1970s.

Of course, there are other problems along the way, even if Seoul decided to go nuclear.

First of all, South Korea has to pull out from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the international accord that limits the spread of nuclear weapons. The country joined the treaty in 1975.

Another major obstacle is the Atomic Energy Agreement between Seoul and Washington, the bilateral accord signed in 1973 to regulate the former's use of nuclear energy.

Under the agreement, Korea is not supposed to make highly-enriched uranium or plutonium, which is required to develop nuclear arms.

It is set to expire in 2014 and both sides are expected to work together to renew it. But the U.S. is highly unlikely to enable South Korea to enrich uranium or generate plutonium.

"As a signatory of the NPT, it is practically impossible to build nuclear arsenals. Plus, we have to violate the Atomic Energy Agreement to do so," said Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies affiliated with Seoul National University.

"The U.S. or China will not condone South Korea having nuclear arms. Worse, it can set off an arms race in neighboring nations including Japan and Taiwan to further aggravate things."

The nuclear armament debate is not new in South Korea.

The U.S. installed forward-based tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea in the late 1950s but removed all of them in 1991 when the two Koreas were negotiating a Joint Declaration for the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In the early 2000s, there were efforts to bring the U.S. nuclear weapons back to Korea but they eventually failed.

In the 1970s, then President Park tried to develop a nuclear arsenal but the plan was terminated as a result of pressure from the U.S.

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