Fitzpatrick and Dalton, Byun and Lee on South Korean Nuclear Options



None of Donald Trump’s comments on US foreign policy toward Asia have been quite as unsettling to the foreign policy mainstream as those suggesting that South Korea and Japan might—and even should—acquire nuclear weapons. Thanks to Mark Fitzpatrick at IISS and Toby Dalton, Byun Sunggee and Lee Sang Tae at Carnegie we have both a deep historical dive on the issue, covering the history of weapons programs in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and a more contemporary review of the debate in South Korea.

Fitzpatrick’s Asia's Latent Nuclear Powers is provocatively titled; we worry when adversaries have the capacity to break out, but Japan, Korea and Taiwan probably all have the capacity to go nuclear in relatively short-order as well. Yet in the end, what matters are the incentives to go nuclear, not the capabilities, and the forces pushing against such developments seem overwhelming.

Each country chapter is structured around a careful consideration of what we know about past nuclear forays, including the fairly serious ones in South Korea triggered by Nixon’s Guam Doctrine. The chapter goes through the capabilities that derive from South Korea’s world-class nuclear industry but the key section is on “Constraints.” The forces arrayed against going down this path are not just normative; indeed, at least some polls show public support for the option, as we will see below. Pursuing a nuclear option would have disastrous consequences for South Korea’s nuclear industry, as the supply of uranium fuel would immediately be cut off under a series of bilateral cooperation agreements with the US, France and other countries. It would require the country claiming force majeure and withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, exercising its rights under Article X to give this a legal patina. This move in turn would set off a set of predictable and unpredictable reactions in the US, China, Japan and North Korea; in sum, it would take an unforeseen crisis, massive political shifts in the South, and nerves of steel for South Korea to actually take this step.

Dalton, Byun and Lee do us the service of following the debates set in train by the statements over the years by Representative Won Yoo-chul, the floor leader from the ruling Saenuri Party, who has called on South Koreans to “think about our own survival strategy and countermeasures that include peaceful nuclear and missile programs for the sake of self-defense.” The theoretical rationale for these positions is pretty thin gruel: if North Korea actually had the capability to strike the United States, that extended deterrence would weaken dramatically. To be sure, American planners are thinking hard about war planning under different North Korean capabilities, and Kier Lieber and Daryl Press and Viping Narang provide good introductions. But the effect of a nuclear North Korea on the alliance appears to be going in exactly the opposite direction: towards closer, not weaker, cooperation.

Dalton, Byun and Lee note that about eight legislators have picked up this theme, and the meaning of the nuclear option is in fact quite varied, ranging from a hedge, to reintroducing US tactical nuclear forces in the peninsula, to full exit from the NPT. They also parse the data with respect to public opinion, showing that while support for a nuclear option is still surprisingly high—around 50%—that it has actually declined since 2013. Interestingly, threat perception with respect to North Korea is also declining, despite the fourth nuclear test, although opinions on these issues divide quite sharply by partisanship.

Nonetheless, the takeaway—by both Dalton, Byun and Lee—is not necessarily sanguine given that some mirroring is taking place between US and South Korean political debates. Populist US attitudes toward the alliances—that they are free-riders—is matched by a similar populist-nationalism in Korea: that the US is unreliable and that Korea has to pursue its own course. Moreover—as in the US—these voices are heard on both the left and right of the political spectrum; for a particularly thoughtful take from the left on the implications of US political turmoil, see the recent contribution by Chung-in Moon at Joongang, which sparked some debate.

The real takeaway: the comments of the candidates of major American political parties have consequences for the credibility of US commitments. 

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