South Korea’s nuclear option a non-starter under Moon

By Key-young Son Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/29 19:03:40

Ever since South Korea's former president Park Chung-hee, father of disgraced president Park Geun-hye, was assassinated by one of his close aides in 1979, South Korea's ambition to develop nuclear weapons was indefinitely shelved under pressure from the United States and the international community.

In the 1970s, the senior Park had his own rationale in pursuing the nuclear option. Since the United States under the Nixon administration sought the withdrawal of US forces, South Korea needed to beef up its conventional forces with nuclear weapons in a volatile security landscape unfolding in the wake of the détente.

The Kim Jong-un regime of North Korea follows a similar logic. Because it cannot compete with the economically stronger South Korea in a conventional arms race, the regime gambled on the nuclear option for several decades to offset any strategic disadvantage.

However, debates on South Korea's nuclear option resurfaced with North Korea's repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2016 and 2017. A Gallup Korea poll in September found 60 percent of respondents in favor of South Korea having its own nuclear weapons, with 35 percent against it.

South Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo also discussed the possibility of deploying tactical nuclear weapons to the country in his meeting with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon on August 30. However, Vice Minister of Defense Suh Choo-suk told the National Assembly's National Defense Committee the next day that it was not a serious discussion.

US tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991, timed with the joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

As the nuclear option was supported by a majority of people and the conservative opposition parties, is it possible for South Korea to go nuclear? The answer is "no," at least during the Moon Jae-in's administration that has even sought to dismantle the aging nuclear power plants and stop the construction of new ones as part of his green energy initiatives.

In an interview with CNN after North Korea's sixth nuclear test on September 3, President Moon Jae-in made it clear that South Korea would not develop nuclear weapons or accept US tactical nuclear devices in the country.

The anti-nuclear sentiment of President Moon and his key supporters appears to be strong enough to fend off shifting public opinion in favor of South Korea's possession of nuclear capabilities to deter the rising threat from North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

President Moon has been adamant that South Korea should not possess nuclear weapons, since the option would lead to a nuclear domino effect in Northeast Asia. 

Therefore, when US President Donald Trump makes a state visit to South Korea for a summit scheduled for November 7, one day before his trip to Beijing, the two presidents will reaffirm their unwavering stance for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Rather than a discussion of South Korea's nuclear option, the two presidents are expected to talk on ways to strengthen their alliance to press North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

South Korea will further seek to secure some room for maneuver in handling North Korea-related issues. The United States is suspicious of the possibility of South Korea veering off from international efforts to strangle North Korea's lifelines.

Once, Trump rebuked South Korea on his Twitter account: "South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work." Despite US pressures, however, the Moon administration has explored ways to reopen dialogue with North Korea at the same time abiding by UN resolutions against Pyongyang.

The author is Humanities Korea (HK) Professor at the Asiatic Research Institute, Korea University, in Seoul.


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