A Nuclear South Korea?


Chung Mong-joon, a presidential candidate from the majority Saenuri Party, has called for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons. Korea specialist Kimura Kan discusses the latest developments within the context of the East Asian nuclear umbrella.

With South Korea set to vote for a new president in December 2012, the candidates have begun to unleash the opening salvos of their electoral campaigns. Some of the most combative statements have come from the long-shot candidates, who need to do whatever they can to make themselves heard, particularly during the early stages of the campaign, if they are to make it through the party primaries. This has led to a number of outbursts that might strike us as extreme. Looking at these gives a clear sense of where the dividing line between the acceptable and the unacceptable lies in South Korean politics.

The Nuclear Armament Debate

One of the most notable of these outbursts came from Chung Mong-joon, former chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, now the Saenuri Party, which Chung hopes to represent in the presidential race. In a June 4 press conference, Chung said that South Korea should develop its own nuclear deterrent to the North Korean nuclear threat. He claimed that a nuclear-armed North Korea was already a reality and that diplomatic efforts to denuclearize the peninsula had failed. In spite of this, South Korea remains dependent on the United States for its nuclear strategy. South Korea should work to develop its own nuclear weapons as a matter of immediate priority, Chung said.

In a public opinion poll conducted this May by the Chosun Ilbo, a leading South Korean daily, Chung Mong-joon’s support rating was just 1.5%, making his chances of winning the Saenuri nomination practically non-existent. A scion of the Hyundai chaebol, or industrial conglomerate, Chung played a central role in bringing the 2002 World Cup to Korea. But 10 years later, he finds himself a dark-horse candidate in the presidential race. His recent statement attracted attention not so much because of Chung’s call for nuclear armament or the hard line he took against the North. His remarks created a stir because of the clarity with which he referred to the limitations of a nuclear strategy that remains dependent on the United States.

Relations with North Korea and China

The driving force behind Chung’s call for a nuclear South Korea is the sensitive set of international circumstances the country now faces. The central issue, of course, is North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons. As Chung made clear, a nuclear North Korea is already a reality, and none of the countermeasures enacted by the international community has produced results. Despite this, the United States has downgraded its commitment to East Asia, and is considering reducing the strength of its forces stationed in Korea. Although South Korea’s relations with America have improved since Lee Myung-bak became president, the global economic recession has forced the United States to curtail its military spending. In an election year in the United States, there is little interest in the situation on the Korean Peninsula and little prospect that it will become the subject of serious public discussion.

Growing Chinese influence is another dark cloud hanging over South Korean politics. South Korea finds itself caught in a geopolitical seismic shift as the withdrawal of the United States coincides with the rise of an increasingly assertive China. Unlike the rising tensions in the South China Sea, the defining factor in Chinese–South Korean relations is not military but rather the increasing dependence of the South Korean economy on China. In 2010, exports to China made up fully 40% of Korea’s total exports. The imbalance between the two economies—China’s is six times the size of Korea’s—means that Korea hardly has a free hand in its dealings with China.

Given this, we can begin to understand why Chung Mong-joon decided to make nuclear armament a presidential campaign pledge, albeit one certain to be rejected by the international community. His comments reveal the frustration many in South Korea feel at being confronted with a nuclear-armed North Korea at the same time as they face a growing threat from China. If the United States were ever to abandon South Korea, the country would be left to fend for itself. Nuclear weapons would both act as a deterrent and symbolize Korea’s ability to take care of its own defense.

The present situation is reminiscent of the 1970s, when South Korea made a previous attempt to develop nuclear weapons. Then as now, the decision was prompted by changes in the global situation. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president on the promise of a full withdrawal of US troops from Korea, following the US defeat in Vietnam and relative East-West détente. These developments were enough to start South Korea down the path to nuclear armament. Shifts in US policy on the Korean Peninsula are inseparably bound up with nuclear arms development in the region.

This does not necessarily mean that South Korea will begin developing nuclear arms any time soon. The country is not strong enough militarily to stand up to China alone, and a small number of nuclear weapons would have no real effect on the balance of power between China and South Korea. On the other hand, if it did pursue the nuclear option, it would almost certainly mean the loss of the Korea–US alliance. It is unthinkable that Seoul would take such a risk. In this sense, Chung’s bluster amounts to little more than a gamble by a long-shot candidate yearning for attention—and one that seems to have been unsuccessful, at that.

The East Asian Nuclear Umbrella.

But Chung Mong-joon’s reckless campaign pledge is not really the important issue here. The key thing to note is the strategic shift by the United States, which has until now unilaterally provided East Asia with its nuclear umbrella, and the huge impact that this shift will inevitably have on the nuclear balance of power in the region. North Korea’s pursuit of its own nuclear weapons is designed to replace the nuclear umbrella previously provided by China and the former Soviet Union, following the easing of tensions between these powers and Japan, the United States, and South Korea. In this sense, the situation is straightforward—a country that has lost the protection of one nuclear umbrella is simply working to replace it with a deterrent of its own.

The same thing applies to Japan. Any deterioration of the Japan-US relationship places Japan’s security in jeopardy, and leads to discussion of a Japanese nuclear option. But this option is unpromising for Japan. A small number of nuclear weapons would have little impact on the regional balance of power. But what we would stand to lose is immeasurable. Just like South Korea’s alliance with the United States, the US-Japan alliance ensures that Japan has no need to embark on pointless military adventures. The example of South Korea shows clearly the vital importance of keeping the United States anchored firmly in East Asia.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 26, 2012.)

East Asia North Korea nuclear weapons South Korea presidential election Kimura Kan Chung Mong-joon Grand National Party Saenuri Party South Korean-US relations Lee Myung-bak nuclear umbrella