Even as the war in Ukraine rages on, tensions on the Korean Peninsula are heating up. North Korea is testing missiles at a faster rate than ever, reportedly to refine its tactical nuclear weapon capability. There’s also talk about an imminent seventh North Korean nuclear test.
All of this has reignited interest in nuclear weapons in South Korea. A growing number of South Korean officials are calling for the re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Peninsula. Others insist Seoul needs its own nuclear arsenal. They argue Seoul cannot rely on Washington for the same reason French President Charles de Gaulle questioned whether America would trade New York for Paris during the Cold War.
Former Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow Zachary Keck addresses this debate head on in a new article in Foreign Policy. Drawing on original archival research from his new book, Atomic Friends: How America Deals with Nuclear Armed Allies, Keck reveals that de Gaulle understood Washington would come to Europe’s defense if the Russians used nuclear weapons first. Given South Korea’s importance to the United States, Seoul should realize that the United States will defend it both conventionally and, if necessary, with nuclear weapons.
As Keck notes, “Compared with deterring a conventional attack on West Germany using nuclear weapons during the Cold War, deterring a nuclear attack from North Korea is a far easier task. The U.S.-South Korean alliance, backstopped by the U.S. nuclear deterrent, is capable of defending South Korea.”
In short, Seoul should understand that Washington will not blink when the chips are down and, as Keck explains, going nuclear will cause South Korea more security problems than it might solve.
October 17, 2022
Author: Zachary Keck
As if the world weren’t messy enough, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is back to his usual antics with a flurry of recent missile tests, prompting various responses from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Adding a new twist to a familiar story, North Korea flew bombers and fighter jets close to South Korean airspace, forcing Seoul to scramble its own aircraft.
In truth, although it has faded from global headlines, North Korea’s nuclear advances have quietly reshaped regional security dynamics since the “fire and fury” days of 2017. This is especially true when it comes to the question of whether South Korea should build its own nuclear weapons. The South Korean public has long supported this option: Recent polls have found that 71 percent of South Koreans favor a nuclear capability.
They are increasingly joined by South Korean leaders who question whether the United States will come to Seoul’s defense now that North Korean missiles can reportedly reach any U.S. city. As Lee Baek-soon, a former South Korean ambassador to Australia, put it, “the reliability of [the U.S.] nuclear umbrella is in question as North Korea possesses intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.”
Other South Korean politicians and military leaders are even more explicit. “Either American extended nuclear deterrence is formidable and credible, or South Korea acquires its own nuclear weapons,” Chun In-bum, a former commander of South Korea’s special forces, told the Financial Times, before adding, “I have never doubted an American soldier. But I would be foolish to place my nation’s security in the hands of an American politician.” A growing number of Western analysts seem to agree.
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