Economic Statecraft
South Korea and Nuclear Weapons Debate

Discussions about the US returning tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in the 1990s have been going on for a long time, but they have noticeably intensified in recent months. In addition, the desire to strengthen the alliance with the United States will mean that given the new circumstances, Seoul will spare no effort to prove its value and reliability to Washington. Unfortunately, Russia may well find itself on the receiving end of these efforts, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.

Last spring, the South Korean political class resumed a debate on a matter that until recently seemed to have been resolved long ago, once and for all and, accordingly, has remained off the table for several decades now. It’s about whether Seoul should withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and create its own nuclear weapons. This matter is not yet covered in the media, but is widely discussed by diplomats, politicians and international relations analysts.

President Yoon Suk-yeol put out a statement on August 17 to the effect that South Korea allegedly had no plans to create its own nuclear deterrence force. On the face of it, the president made clear his position on this matter, but what this statement really means is that the discussion on developing nuclear weapons has reached an unprecedented level among the Seoul elites. Never before has the South Korean president openly talked about developing nuclear weapons.

However, the South Korean public has never had any doubts on that matter with polls over the past 15 years or so showing that 60 percent to 75 percent of the South Koreans wanted their country to develop its own nuclear weapons (the most recent poll held in late 2021 showed that 71 percent of respondents were supportive of the idea).

However, until recently, thiskind of popular enthusiasm met with little or no understanding on the part of the political elite, which was well aware of the political consequences of South Korea going nuclear, as well as the barriers Seoul would have to overcome along the way. Truth be told, occasionally individual influential members of the establishment expressed support for the idea of ​​creating nuclear weapons in South Korea, but the majority of the South Korean political class believed that Seoul need not seriously consider the option of going nuclear.

The country’s leadership is aware that developing nuclear weapons would lead to a confrontation between Seoul and the rest of the world and, most likely, to the imposition of international sanctions on South Korea, including UN sanctions. The nuclear option proponents hope, though,that their stance wil lfind understanding with Washington, which would somewhat mitigate the impact.

The World's Nuclear Weapons
Nine countries possessed roughly 13,150 warheads as of mid-2021. Approximately 91 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States who each have around 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles.

China’s position is undoubtedly another hurdle on the way to South Korea possessing nuclear weapons. If Seoul obtains nuclear weapons, a number of East Asian countries are likely to follow in its footsteps since their financial and technical capabilities would enable most countries in that region to develop a bomb in a very short time. However, almost every country that may take an interest in developing ​​nuclear weapons, such as Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, or possibly Burma, would do so primarily as a means to deter China. To prevent this from happening, the Chinese couldresort to economic pressure or go even further. After all, the risk of dying by a sniper bullet or a car bomb has long been a part of life for Iranian physicists.

However, even if it opts not to use force, Beijing could easily deliver a devastating blow to the South Korean economy. Currently, China and Hong Kong account for about a third, 30.5 percent in 2020, of South Korea’s foreign trade. Should China impose an embargo on trade with Korea, this,along with possible UN sanctions would deal a crippling blow to the South Korean economy.

Unlike North Korea, which is a country with a self-contained autarkic economy to begin with and is also one of the toughest dictatorships, South Korea is a democracy and its economy is heavily dependent on foreign trade. Even relatively mild sanctions would have a devastating impact on its economy and lead to a decline in the standard of living. Most likely, South Korean voters would refuse to put up with these difficulties and vote for more peaceful politicians at the first opportunity.

The South Korean political class is well aware of these circumstances. That is why the nuclear issue has not been discussed in that country over the past 40 years. However, the circumstances have changed.

Three converging factors have played a decisive role here, namely, the conflict in Ukraine, changes in North Korean strategy, and changes in US domestic policy.

Seoul (and Pyongyang) realised that the conflict in Ukraine had once again demonstrated the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. South Korean newspapers keephighlighting the fact that Ukraine’s decision to forgo nuclear weapons deployed on its territory wasone of the reasons this conflict became possible. The Seoul media also underscores the factthat Russia’s nuclear weapons make the West act with caution.

A second and perhaps most important factor is the change in North Korea’s nuclear programme, which was defensive until 2015-2016. More recently, the North Korean government has been focusing on developing tactical nuclear weapons, that is, battlefield weapons. North Korea possesses ICBMs capable of hitting targets in the United States, so developing tactical nuclear weapons appears redundant so far as deterrence strategy is concerned. However, in the event of a direct military conflict with South Korea, tactical nuclear weapons would be able to play a decisive role.

Will South Korea Get Nuclear Weapons?
Andrei Lankov
The obstacle to Seoul achieving its nuclear ambitions does not lie in technological or financial problems. But if Seoul started working on nuclear weapons, it would immediately face serious economic and political consequences which, more likely than not, would force it to change position and abandon its nuclear ambitions.

South Korea is concerned that under favourable circumstances the Pyongyang leadership will use its strategic nuclear potential to coerce the United States intoneutrality in a possible intra-Korean conflict, and then use tactical nuclear weapons against South Korea to achieve an overwhelming victory. The likelihood of Pyongyang taking this risk is debatable and,to all appearances, this probability is rather low. However, many in Seoul are concerned about the fact that North Korea’s nuclear programme is increasingly geared towards advancing this particular scenario.

Third, Seoul is still reeling from the shock of Trump’s presidency, which showed thatneo-isolationism ideasare still popularin the United States. Donald Trump was clear about his plans to radically revise the terms of the US-South Korea alliance and possibly withdraw US troops from the Korean Peninsula. Two to three decades ago, there were many people in South Korea who would have welcomed the withdrawal of US troops, but the attitude towards the United States has changed significantly and the prospect of the US troops’withdrawal is causing anxiety bordering on panicin South Korea.

It remains unclear how the South Korean nuclear weapon discussion will play out eventually. Developing nuclear weapons will not be a problem for South Korea either technically or financially. As mentioned above, the country made attempts to create nuclear weapons in the 1970s and they were suspended only understrong pressure from the United States. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that relevant studies were carried out on a limited scale and in deep secrecyuntilat least the early 2000s.

Most observers believe that with the political decision in place, Seoul will be able to come up with a full-fledged nuclear weapon insix to 18 months. However, the above obstacles — the position of the international community, above all, China — will not disappear. The way things are, the South Korean political class will most likely choose not to take unnecessary risks and confine itself to reinforcing the alliance with the United States to the greatest possible extent. In Seoul, stronger alliance is perhaps seen as the only alternative to creating its own nuclear deterrence forces.

From Russia’s standpoint, there’s nothing good about the ongoing events. On the one hand, the emergence of a nuclear South Korea on the military-political map of the world will hardly make Moscow happy for a number of reasons, including because this will deal a severe blow to the nonproliferation system, of which Russia is beneficiary.

Russia has no reason to be happy with the alternative either, which would entail Seoul maximising its alliance ties with the United States. Most likely, giventhe circumstances, the South Korean leaders will press for the United States to deploy more US weapons on the Korean Peninsula, including, maybe, tactical nuclear weapons. Discussions about the US returning tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in the 1990s have been going on for a long time, but they have noticeably intensified in recent months. In addition, the desire to strengthen the alliance with the United States will mean that given the new circumstances, Seoul will spare no effort to prove its value and reliability to Washington. Unfortunately, Russia may well find itself on the receiving end of these efforts. Seoul will be much more amenable to actions directed against Russia than actions that may irritate China. This is not because ithas anything against Russia in principle, but because it may regard certain anti-Russian moves as a relatively cheap and safe way to prove its value to Washington.

Modern Diplomacy
Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear War
Robert Legvold
Over most of the sixty years following the Cuban missile crisis, the danger of a deliberately launched nuclear war steadily declined. That, however, has been changing over the last decade. The slow deterioration at the level of major nuclear powers has now, after February 24, suddenly taken a dramatic turn. Large-scale war among major powers, unthinkable a year ago, no longer is, writes Valdai Club expert Robert Legvold.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.