South Korea’s re-emerging challenge to the US

South Korea’s re-emerging challenge to the US: A nuclear proliferation debate


30 | 12 | 2023


Despite Seoul expressing a desire to enhance its capabilities, it is far from developing a nuclear weapon due to both political and technical considerations

En la imagen

South Korean-made midrange surface-to-air Cheongung II, presented in a militar festival [Teukwonjae707]

South Korea's emerging proliferation strategy is becoming a growing source of concern for both the United States and the international community. Discussions surrounding its nuclear choices are elevating the issue to the forefront of the United States' nonproliferation agenda which encompasses a range of efforts aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism worldwide.

Since the commencement of the Ukrainian war, the South Korean nuclear discourse appears to have taken a particularly abrupt turn, serving as an exhibit for recent developments in the worldwide security environment. In response, the United States has asked South Korea to reiterate its “prevalent commitment” to its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in exchange for measures to strengthen prolonged deterrence against nuclear weapons.

Some critics say that the United States can do nothing to prevent an eventual South Korean weapon, and that it is better to limit the United States prolonged preventative obligations in confrontations that go beyond essential US interests. The entire international community is concerned by the fact that South Korean nuclear proliferation might make matters worse amongst the regional instability and undermine the legitimacy of accords designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

South Korea's urge to proliferate

South Korea's nuclear proliferation case has been characterised by a deteriorating regional context. Growing nuclear security anxieties have been driven by the evolving threat environment in the region, marked by China's assertive stance and North Korea's advanced nuclear and missile programs.

As a result, the Yoon administration in South Korea is advocating a firm reaction to the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons at international summits such as the ASEAN and G20 meetings. It requested for solid measures to be taken to deal with the concerns and problems posed by North Korea's nuclear capability.

The current situation has generated concerns about South Korea creating an independent nuclear deterrence. But, despite South Korea expressing a desire to enhance its nuclear capabilities, the reality is that it is far from developing a nuclear weapon due to both political and technical considerations:

On the one hand, developing a nuclear arsenal could risk significantly weakening South Korea's relations with the United States, its key security ally, and its standing in the international community. In terms of the alliance with the United States, South Korea is now secure under the US nuclear umbrella, which assures defence by threatening nuclear retaliation against possible rivals. However, there is also disagreement about how much South Korea should rely on the US for protection.

On the other hand, the country's attitude towards nuclear proliferation has inevitably been constrained since 1975, when South Korea ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came into force in 1968. Despite differing opinions, it has been affirmed that South Korea's ratification of the NPT depended on the sale of Canadian heavy-water reactors that were essential for the development of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon.

Complying with international norms: The NPT and beyond

As a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT, South Korea is compelled not to receive transfers of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Despite the “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination” (article IV.1), the NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states parties to manufacture, acquire or seek to manufacture nuclear weapons (Article II). Hence, South Korea undertakes binding commitments, which would entail international responsibility in case of non-compliance.

Besides, in January 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (2017) entered into force, which contains a comprehensive set of prohibitions regarding nuclear weapon activities, including the obligation not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile and, more importantly, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons (article 1). The TPNW broadens the scope of the NPT and considers all state parties equally in terms of rights and duties.

The TPNW has certainly shaped the existing nuclear security approaches worldwide since nuclear weapons had never been comprehensively condemned by an international treaty before. However, not all that glitters is gold: while 69 countries are states parties to the 2017 treaty, no nuclear-weapon-state nor any NATO member state nor any of their allies, including South Korea, has signed or ratified the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

By means of both political and legally-binding agreements with nuclear-weapons states, non-nuclear-weapons states stand for and implement nuclear deterrence theories, which undoubtedly contradict the TPNW rights and duties. Hence, for the time being, it is not expected that these countries will shortly become states parties to the TPNW. On the contrary, in light of the current unstable geopolitical situation, South Korea, among other countries, is likely to become more interested in nuclear proliferation activities.

Regional implications: Demands and concerns from Beijing

South Korea's interest in nuclear weaponry originates from a shifting regional threat scenario, especially North Korea's developing nuclear capabilities and China's rough posture. In light of North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile programs, nuclear weapons are seen in South Korea as a useful deterrent against a potentially nuclear-armed opponent. In this sense, both the general public and the strategic elite in South Korea increasingly view nuclear weapons as a status symbol that could enhance the country's security and deter a potential North Korean invasion.

A parallel instance of this ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula is reflected in the case of the Indian-Pakistan scenario. Post gaining independence in 1947, these two neighbouring nations entered into conflict. The partition resulted in the establishment of religiously divided states, notably with the Kashmir region emerging as the focal point of contention. Both countries have acquired nuclear weapons capacities beyond the boundaries of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The main aim is to maintain a deterrent influence on each other. Changes in the geopolitical landscape, increased tensions, and developments in military technology in the region have made ensuring nuclear stability in Southern Asia a greater challenge.

From an Asian point of view, in the event that South Korea develops nuclear weapons, Beijing may impose tighter sanctions, increasing its susceptibility to Chinese and North Korean threats and perhaps generating regional instability. Globally, South Korea's nuclear ambitions might jeopardise nonproliferation efforts, raising tensions and encouraging other nations to pursue nuclear weapons.

Overall, South Korea is expected to find a balance between both national security and its economic interests with China. Both nations need to work together on this strategy. Through this the importance of a balanced approach is emphasised as different views of two nations are considered regarding cooperative efforts. The resulting effects of this effort will have an influence not just on regional dynamics, but also on global peace and security initiatives.

South Korea and the United States: Friends or foes?

Despite being adopted by the United Nations in 2017, the United States, along with other nuclear weapon states like South Korea have not approved the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty establishes strict rules on everything about nuclear weapons, meaning how they're made, tested, produced, acquired or even threatened to be used. The United States argues that banning nuclear weapons through a treaty which does not include nuclear weapons states is not efficient at all.

Nevertheless, the United States is in favour of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The nation has made it very clear that its nuclear weapons are used to deter aggression and avoid conflict, and that the contemplation of using nuclear weapons would be in extremely serious situations aiming to preserve its interests and partnerships.

The US has committed to consult with South Korea before any attempt to use nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. In 2023, the two countries established a cooperative organisation aiming to confront North Korea's nuclear threat. South Korea has repeatedly opposed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, emphasising the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, and supporting the preservation and potential use of US nuclear weapons. To measure the success of these efforts, one may look at the US and South Korean positions on the TPNW. The United States rejects it, citing the need for a nuclear deterrent in defence.

The pursuit of an autonomous nuclear deterrent by South Korea carries the potential to strain the enduring trust and alliance between the United States and South Korea. Such strain may activate automatic US sanctions, disrupt international cooperation concerning South Korea's nuclear energy program, and elicit a robust reaction from China, potentially manifesting in economic sanctions. Furthermore, this undertaking could exacerbate strategic tensions on a global scale.

However, their partnership to strengthen nuclear cooperation demonstrates their shared commitment to tackle North Korea's nuclear threat. While the United States main aim is on the defensive role of its nuclear weapons, South Korea's strategy strives to change the nuclear threat from North Korea. In short, both countries aim to address security challenges and maintain regional stability.

Potential future international scenarios

The international community as a whole is closely monitoring the possibility of South Korean nuclear proliferation. Concerns and controversy regarding South Korea's nuclear ambitions are growing, while nuclear tensions in the Korean Peninsula escalate.

To solve these difficulties, the United States and South Korea intend to expand their alliance into a worldwide cooperation, tackling greater regional and global peace challenges. Both nations are working in conjunction to enhance policy coordination amongst the Indo-Pacific region, which assumes a vital part in boosting South Korea's reliability as a regional partner and its leadership abilities.

It is important to consider that, if the United States were to impose pressure on South Korea to adopt a position regarding the Chinese conflict, it might result in negative consequences for both US and Seoul's influence in the region. To prevent this, the US should avoid pressuring South Koreans to choose between the two great powers, thereby reducing the risk of unfavorable outcomes. Instead, close cooperation on China policy is required to mitigate risks and shared interests. Despite the fact that their perspectives on China are different, most notably in terms of economic connections, finding a balance is necessary.

Ultimately, nations all throughout the world intend to maintain a close eye on and collaborate with South Korea to address any nuclear-related challenges. This continued collaboration demonstrates a common commitment to addressing nuclear problems and making the world a safer place.

Moving forward, joint efforts to enhance international treaties are critical for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and ensuring global security. The necessity of diplomatic resolutions, open communication, and collaborative commitment in tackling the problems posed by the threat of South Korea attaining nuclear capability cannot be overemphasised.