South Korea’s Nuclear Dilemma Amidst Pyongyang’s Live-Drills

The Korean Peninsula is facing a persistent crisis due to North Korea’s nuclear rhetoric, with recent artillery shells fired near the sea border causing furor. Pyongyang fired over 350 rounds of artillery, a reaction to South Korea’s military activities and border-based drill exercises.

The launch of the Hwasong-18, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), in December 2023, and the declaration of a nuclear attack ‘anytime’ have also raised concerns. Kim Jong-Un has reiterated the threat to nuke the United States if provoked, claiming it was due to military confrontation hysteria against the former.

South Korea’s nuclear dilemma is complicated by domestic pressure for greater autonomy, external threats, and the developing facets of international security. Seoul has been largely dependent on Washington for its security, but has started engaging with Beijing to gain economic benefits and counter Pyongyang’s rising threat. This has made it difficult to navigate its foreign policy independently, especially its nuclear policy.

To navigate its foreign policy, Seoul has been actively involved in diplomatic engagements, such as establishing closer ties with the QUAD and being vocal against Beijing’s aggressions. South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol has also discussed the potential for South Korea to develop its nuclear weapons or reintroduce US tactical nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Seoul has been rethinking its nuclear weapons development, a move that was initially halted by Washington. However, President Yoon San-soon’s statements have reshaped the domestic discourse on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The ongoing threat posed by Pyongyang, a country with a looming nuclear shadow, has led to increased support for developing its own nuclear defense.

A survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found that 64.3% of Koreans support independently developing nuclear weapons, while a joint survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies found that over 70% of Koreans favor the idea of their state developing nuclear capabilities in response to rising nuclear threats.

Chinese belligerence, a longstanding supporter of Pyongyang, has heightened tensions by endorsing the Kim regime. China’s recent declaration of a renewed threat to invade Taiwan has further exacerbated this position. In case of an invasion, China could leverage North Korea’s defense power to create a dual threat for both the US and South Korea, deterring the US from involvement in the Taiwan dispute.

Beijing’s opposition to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Seoul and punitive economic coercions have restricted Seoul’s ability to deter and shield its security and economy. As a result, South Koreans view China as a significant threat and desire nuclear weapons to address these dual threats.

The US’s dependence on South Korea has been challenged by perceived inconsistencies in American commitment, particularly with the Trump administration’s “America First” policies. This has led to pro-nuclear sentiments within South Korea, and the Washington Declaration, aimed at mitigating the nuclear threat by deploying nuclear-armed submarines, has not adequately addressed these concerns.

There is a genuine concern that the US will prioritize its cities and citizens’ safety over those of Koreans, prompting contemplation of developing indigenous nuclear capabilities. Additionally, potential nuclear technology sharing between Russia and North Korea raises the possibility of South Korea seeking to revise alliance agreements to initiate a nuclear-powered submarine program, known as an SSN program.

Gabriela Bernal, an independent DPRK watcher, warns that South Korea may disregard US wishes and pursue the nuclear option to protect its security. The momentum behind the proposal to develop nuclear weapons surged following the US’s rejection of President Yoon’s suggestions, fueling a growing sentiment of national pride and a desire for strategic autonomy.

South Korea’s advanced scientific and technological capabilities are crucial for potential nuclear weapons development, but the feasibility of South Korea emerging as a nuclear power in the current global context necessitates careful reconsideration.

South Korea’s nuclear crisis reflects global challenges in the nuclear non-proliferation regime. To address this, South Korea must combine diplomatic efforts, regional collaboration, and a strong conventional defense. Revitalizing the alliance can alleviate South Korea’s security concerns through increased security cooperation, joint military exercises, and a renewed commitment to extended deterrence. The US and South Korea have established guidelines for a joint nuclear strategy by mid-2024, covering issues such as sharing sensitive information, establishing a security system, and managing crises.

Additionally, there is a need for increased focus on addressing nuclear threat denuclearization through multilateral platforms like G20 and UNSC, as well as diplomatic efforts like increased trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the US. Seoul’s inclusion in the Quad umbrella to discuss denuclearization talks can apply pressure on Pyongyang beyond international sanctions. Although complete denuclearization is not guaranteed, these efforts can reduce rhetoric and promote discussions on denuclearization.

Seoul’s strategic approach to nuclear development and diplomatic engagement reflects a refined strategic approach. However, a balance must be maintained between the US-Korea nuclear alliance, domestic security concerns, and diplomatic engagement. The current US administration offers reassurances to Korea, but policymakers must be vigilant of future US administrations’ approaches post-US elections in 2024.

South Korea’s export-driven economy makes it vulnerable to international sanctions, and developing nuclear weapons could destabilize regional security, promote an arms race, and jeopardize its global standing. The stance on developing nuclear weapons remains vague, but the demand for them will continue to grow in the future.

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