Why do South Koreans lose faith in America’s nuclear umbrella?


They have, so we need them.

This is the main argument of the South Koreans who want their country to develop nuclear weapons. It is about the need to protect themselves from an aggressive northern neighbor that is already a nuclear power in all but name and whose leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to “massively increase” its arsenal.

The counterargument, which has long prevented Seoul from pursuing the bomb, is the potential consequences. Developing nuclear weapons would not only upset the country’s relationship with the United States, but potentially lead to sanctions that could choke off Seoul’s access to nuclear energy. And this is to say nothing of the regional arms race that would inevitably spark it.

But which side of the argument the South Koreans find themselves on seems to be changing.

Ten years ago, advocating nuclear weapons for South Korea was a fringe idea that did not receive serious coverage. Today it has become a mainstream discussion.

Recent opinion polls show that a majority of South Koreans support their country having its own nuclear weapons program. A series of prominent academics who once shunned the idea have changed sides. Even President Yoon Seok Yeol brought up the idea.

So what has changed?

For proponents, Seoul’s development of its own nuclear weapons would finally answer the age-old question: “Would Washington risk San Francisco for Seoul in the event of a nuclear war?”

Currently, South Korea is under Washington’s extended deterrence strategy, which includes the nuclear umbrella, which means that the United States is obligated to assist it in the event of an attack.

For some, that’s enough reassurance. But the details of the specific form the “help” might take are not entirely clear. As this age-old question indicates, faced with the prospect of a retaliatory nuclear strike on American soil, Washington would have compelling reason to limit its involvement.

Perhaps it is best not to ask the question then. As Chung Seong Chang of the Sejong Institute said, “If South Korea has nuclear weapons, we can respond to North Korea’s attack, so there is no reason for the United States to intervene.”

There are other reasons why South Koreans are also skeptical of their decades-old leap of faith in the protection of the United States. Donald Trump looms. Noting the expenses involved, the former US president made no secret of his desire to withdraw 28,500 US troops from South Korea and questioned why the US had to protect the country. Given that Trump has already announced his candidacy for the 2024 election, this is an issue that still weighs heavily on people’s minds.

“The United States is simply not seen as reliable as it once was,” said Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “Even if a Biden administration behaves like a traditional US administration and gives all the right signals of reassurance to South Korea…policy makers will have to keep in mind the possibility that the US will once again elect an administration that will have a different approach to South Korea.”

But the loss of faith goes beyond Trump.

South Korean President Yun Sok Yul in Seoul on August 17, 2022.

More recently, President Yun Sok-yul has floated the idea of ​​redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula or having South Korea “its own nuclear capabilities” if the North Korean threat intensifies. Washington’s rejection of both ideas was clear. When Yoon said this month that Seoul and Washington were discussing joint nuclear exercises, President Joe Biden was asked the same day if those discussions were actually underway. He simply replied, “No.”

After Yoon’s remarks, the press secretary of the US Department of Defense, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder emphasized the US commitment to the Extended Deterrence Strategy, saying that “so far, it (the strategy) has worked and has worked very well.”

In an interview with Chosun Ilbo published on January 2, Yoon said of these guarantees, “It’s hard to convince our people.”

But in another interview, with The Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the Davos forum last week, Yun walked back those comments, saying, “I am quite confident in the US’s extended deterrence.”

An inconsistent message rarely assuages ​​concerns on both sides of the argument.

On Thursday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US think tank, proposed what might sound like a compromise — the creation of a “Joint Nuclear Planning Framework” that could “help develop stronger bonds of trust between allies in the current environment.”

She said the framework could be “similar to a NATO planning group for the use of nuclear weapons, with planning done bilaterally and trilaterally (with Japan) and control remaining in the hands of the United States.”

But the US Central Intelligence Agency (CSIS) has made it clear that it does not support “the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula or condone South Korea’s purchase of its nuclear weapons.”

Other experts too, such as Professor Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear non-proliferation expert At California’s Middlebury Institute, view joint planning and exercises as “more realistic options than nuclear weapons or nuclear sharing.”

For some in Yoon’s conservative party, that simply isn’t enough. They see a nuclear-free South Korea as threatened by a nuclear-armed North Korea and want nothing less than the redeployment of US nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.

It seems they are destined to be disappointed. Washington removed its tactical weapons from South Korea in 1991 after decades of deployment, and there are no indications that it would consider reversing that decision.

“Returning US nuclear weapons to the peninsula makes no military sense,” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation.

“Currently they are very difficult to find, it is very difficult to target weapons platforms and take weapons from them and put them in a cache in South Korea, which is a very attractive target for North Korea. What you have done is you have weakened your capabilities.”

This leaves many South Koreans seeing only one option – and some losing patience.

Cheung, who recently embraced South Korea with the nuclear bomb, believes that the expanded deterrence strategy has already reached its limits in dealing with North Korea and that only a nuclear-armed South Korea can avoid war.

Of course, North Korea does not want South Korea’s nuclear weapons. “Now they can ignore the South Korean army,” Cheung said.

“But they should be nervous, (because if South Korea decides to pursue the bomb) they have the nuclear materials to make more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.”

However, it is not only the fear of a turbulent relationship with the United States that prevents Seoul from such a course. If South Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the impact on the domestic nuclear energy system is likely to be rapid and devastating.

“First of all, the NSG Group will cut off fissile material from South Korea, which relies on external suppliers for all fissile material. This could lead to international sanctions,” Klingner said.

South Korean and US planes take part in a joint air exercise on November 18, 2022.

Then there is the regional arms race it is likely to spark, as neighboring China has made clear it will not tolerate such a buildup.

“It is possible that China will be unhappy and will stop at nothing to prevent South Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons,” said Professor Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea expert from Kookmin University.

Given the potential ramifications, it might be best for Seoul to take comfort in the guarantees already offered from the United States.

“The 28,500 US troops on the peninsula have a very real tripwire effect. In the event of hostilities breaking out between the two Koreas, it is simply inevitable that the US will not get involved. We have skin in the game,” Panda said.

Finally, there are also those who warn that even if South Korea does indeed obtain nuclear weapons, its problems will hardly disappear.

“The funny thing about nuclear weapons is that your weapons don’t make up for theirs,” said Lewis of the Middlebury Institute.

“Look at Israel. Israel is nuclear and fears Iran getting nuclear weapons, so Israel’s nuclear weapons in no way compensate for the threat it feels from Iranian nuclear weapons.”

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