Late last month, the head of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party, Chung Jin Suk, warned that Seoul would “need to seriously consider” developing its own nuclear weapons force. His announcement came on the heels of a similar statement by President Yoon Suk Yeol in January. Clearly, South Korea’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons is growing.
This is nothing new. In the early 1970s, President Park Chung-hee initiated a covert nuclear weapons program. President Park was concerned that the United States might abandon Seoul given Washington’s withdrawal from Vietnam, its weak response to North Korean military provocations, and its downgrading of formal relations with Taiwan. Fortunately, through the deft use of intelligence and diplomacy, Washington was able to uncover these plans and block them.
As part of a larger project on the future of nuclear nonproliferation, NPEC commissioned Richard Lawless, the former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs and former Central Intelligence Agency operative, to review this history. Mr. Lawless played a major role in blocking South Korea’s first attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.
In his historical note, “Seoul’s Current Nuclear Weapons Dilemma: What Does History Teach?,” he details what we can learn from America’s success in stopping South Korea’s program in the 70s and what has changed. He warns that today we may not be able to prevent Seoul from going nuclear. In any case, Washington will need to sharpen its intelligence focus in a number of ways to address what may unfold. In specific, Mr. Lawless argues that Washington will need to pay much closer attention to South Korean security expectations as the United States increases its strategic cooperation with Japan and as North Korea perfects its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Seoul’s Current Nuclear Weapons Dilemma: What Does History Teach?
By Richard Lawless
President Yoon Suk Yeol’s public comments on January 12, 2023, that South Korea may need to acquire nuclear weapons highlighted what an increasing number of South Koreans view as their deteriorating security situation. North Korean direct threats against the Republic of Korea, as well as worries that America’s long-standing commitment to “extended deterrence” may be eroding, have only fortified their concerns.
This same theme was echoed and reinforced on February 20, 2023, by the head of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party Chung Jin-suk, who expressed serious concerns about the ability of South Korea’s current “kill chain” preemptive strike strategy to deter North Korea. In making his case for an indigenous nuclear weapons capability, Chung went beyond President Yoon’s earlier comments with his statement, delivered that day to a gathering of his party leadership. “We need to seriously consider developing our own nuclear capabilities if such a response is insufficient.” (See Christian Davies, “South Korea Ruling Party Leader Makes Case for Nuclear Weapons,” Financial Times, February 21, 2023.)
None of these current concerns are new. In fact, all have been components of an internal dialog in South Korea for many years as concern over North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and Pyongyang’s ability to deliver them with increasing precision and confidence. Beyond this, there are historical parallels with South Korea’s first attempt to acquire nuclear weapons in the early 1970s that deserve closer review.
This essay explores Seoul’s current security concerns and consideration of acquiring nuclear weapons as a “fix” by reviewing why and how its first attempt to acquire nuclear weapons was made and unfolded. It then uses this history to consider how such a decision on the part of South Korea in 2023 might best be detected, monitored, channeled, mitigated, and managed to inform U.S. policy making.
Given the public nature of this subject, and the degree to which it is being discussed in official and unofficial U.S. and ROK forums, such a decision would likely not result in Seoul again undertaking a covert nuclear weapons development program. (In the past, such an approach was judged to be necessary and unavoidable.) Once decided, such a program would involve fundamental alliance compromises and would alter the structure and mutual commitments of the bilateral security and political relationship.
However unlikely it may appear at this stage, this scenario is highly possible. Once Korean leaders make such a decision, in a decision process that could well occur independent of a dialog with the United States, South Korea and the United States would find themselves challenged to craft a smooth way forward. Korean determination to proceed would meet strong American resistance but would be relevant only up to a point. The end product, a South Korea in possession of its own nuclear deterrent and thus capable of exercising its own security options, would not necessarily doom the bilateral security relationship.
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