S. Korea does not need nuclear weapons ― yet
In teaching international security in Korea, I am regularly asked if Korea should have or will have nuclear weapons. North Korea has them obviously, so, not surprisingly, South Koreans are increasingly thinking they should have them too. While it seems straight-forward to say the North has them, therefore the South should have them too, I think this is inaccurate ― and not because America doesn’t want the South to nuclearize.
Koreans bristle at this, as many states in the world do, because they feel that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) constitutes nuclear discrimination. The haves (including the U.S.) get to keep their nuclear weapons, while the have-nots stay de-nuclear on the vague promise that the haves will build down to zero. Needless to say, the NPT haves have done little on this, leading to regular cries of hypocrisy (although President Barak Obama seems to genuinely want “global zero”). So last decade, India openly rejected this logic and went nuclear despite the nuclear haves’ resistance. Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea followed.
But the South’s potential possession of nuclear weapons would not actually serve local security from the North. Pyongyang’s nuclear use would immediately trigger the South’s invasion of the North. It is impossible to imagine the South absorbing a nuclear strike without this finally forcing Seoul’s hand to invade the North and end the long inter-Korean stalemate.
A nuclear strike would be so devastating that no other possible retaliation ― airstrikes, port-mining, more sanctions, closing Gaeseong ― would be seriously countenanced. While the initial casus belli would be to suppress the North’s nuclear capabilities and force regime change, in reality, the invasion would quickly to turn into a war of national unification ― a second Korean war to finally close the rift. Every analyst I’ve ever heard or read thinks that the South would win such a war ― even without U.S., Japanese, or U.N. help. It would be a harder slog alone of course, but victory is still quite likely.
In the wake of its victory, the South would have to rebuild the North, including cleaning up blast zones in the North from the U.S. or the South’s own nuclear strikes a short time earlier. As such, the South is unlikely to ever launch in the first place. There is no point in creating mass devastation one must fix a short time later. More formally stated, a second-strike by the South is irrelevant, because a first-strike by the North would change Seoul’s preferences toward from defense and deterrence to irredentism. The North’s first-strike would end the South’s hesitation and confusion regarding the communist state, and push it openly toward intra-Korean “imperialism,” i.e., irredentism and unity.
Note the difference between the two Koreas, and the U.S. and the USSR. Neither the U.S. nor the USSR had any compunction about nuking each other’s homeland, because neither expected to bear the clean-up costs. The same might be argued for the Indo-Pakistani nuclear competition today. But Korea is different. The South would not nuke the North in response to a first-strike and then just walk away. The North’s first-strike ― given the special “divided nation” status of the peninsula ― would push the South into the long-awaited, much-speculated-upon Second Korean War. And this time there would be a clear winner who would then have to pay for all the reconstruction. So it would be better in a unified Korea to have, say, just five blast-zones in the South, rather than yet five more in the North.
The only possible alternative is the South’s nuclear use on the North if the South was actually losing the unification war. If the North launched a first-strike that devastated multiple Southern cities and threw the military into disarray, then the South might consider a “counter-force” nuclear strike on the North Korean People’s Army in order to slow it down and buy the Southern military time to reorganize and win the war. NATO considered similar counter-force strikes in WWIII scenarios.
If the Red Army was rolling through Western Europe on the way to victory, NATO reserved the right to “first-use” against military assets to stem the Soviet tide. But even these strikes would be very limited in Korea ― likely low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons. The idea of nuking Northern cities ― “counter-value” city-busting ― is likely off the table due to the massive reconstruction costs that Seoul would have to carry for such strikes a short time later. And global opinion would likely regard strategic counter-value strikes in the North as a war crime.
Beyond the North, the South’s nuclear weapons might be construed against China, Russia, and Japan ― the first two of whom are nuclear. Charles de Gaulle famously said French missiles pointed “360 degrees.” And the initial aim of the French nuclear program was as much Germany as the Soviet Union. After three German invasions in 70 years, the French military wanted the ultimate guarantee of French sovereignty that nuclear weapons would give. South Korea might think the same way regarding Japan, the former colonizer (a surprising number of Koreans still think Japan has imperial designs on Korea). And of course, the South lives next the Chinese goliath. Should the U.S. alliance with South Korea dissolve under the weight of American indebtedness, the South might seek nuclear weapons to hedge China. Finally, the South might nuclearize solely for prestige purposes as India did.
But extra-peninsular deterrence is rarely discussed in the Korean media, where most of the nuclear focus is on the North. Yet the South is so unlikely to nuke the North because the former would carry the clean-up costs, that the latter would read Southern nuclearization as a hollow gesture. Worse, the North would likely spin Southern nuclearization as “aggression” and yet another reason for the Korean division. Post-unification however ― and especially if the U.S. slowly retrenches from Asia ― the South’s nuclearization is far more likely.
Robert E. Kelly is an assistant professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com. The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.