East Asia faces a long-term security challenge, with South Korea potentially having to consider nuclear options that could further disrupt the region, write Christopher Green and Peter Ward.
Through much of the Cold War, North Korea sought to take advantage of the great power rivalry between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Relations between the three countries went through several phases, but a constant throughout was North Korea’s refusal to pick sides between Moscow and Beijing as Sino-Soviet relations soured. North Korean diplomats played their weak hand deftly, and as a result, billions of dollars (in today’s money) flowed into the country. This helped to keep the DPRK economy afloat in spite of chronic over-centralisation and the use of inefficient mass mobilisation techniques that did nothing to improve overall productivity.
Not much has really changed in the post-Cold War world. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a paradigmatic shift in North Korea’s international relations, but nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs helped it maintain a profile on the world stage far in excess of other states of a similar size. Pyongyang continued to pursue the same delicate balancing act as before, only between a different mix of state actors this time, namely China, South Korea and the USA. As Charles Armstrong of Columbia University put it, the DPRK is a classic example of the ‘tail wagging the dog:’ a small state with little to offer the international economy that survives primarily because it is on a geopolitical fault line.
South Korea is nothing like North Korea by most measures. It is a vibrant, democratic, open-access society with a highly competitive, export-oriented capitalist economy and a large, affluent middle class. Its dynamic cultural industry has gained renown throughout Asia. Geopolitically speaking, however, the two Koreas are fighting the same battles.
Not only does South Korea border the DPRK, it is also right next door to China. The United States is further away than the Soviet Union used to be, but Washington maintains an alliance with Seoul and has tens of thousands of troops stationed on South Korean soil. Thus, South Korea faces a local enemy and is simultaneously in a pincer between two great powers. Relations between the ROK and the United States have been solid for the last decade or so; however, the potential loss of US military support is something that always excites minds in Seoul’s foreign affairs and defence establishment. There, the radical foreign policy talk of Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump has not gone by unnoticed.
South Korean politics, academia, media and public opinion is increasingly interested, if not yet wholly supportive of developing an independent nuclear deterrent. In a manner similar to Brexit in the UK, what was once fringe talk has taken firm root in the mainstream. On 25 July, former ruling party floor leader Won Yoo-chul declared the need for South Korea to acquire the bomb. “As Trump is openly calling for the pulling out of US troops from South Korea,” Won warned, “the country’s security is like a candlelight facing a storm.”
North Korea’s nuclear developments continue apace, China’s rise as a military power is seen as a potential threat, and the US-ROK alliance is entering an uncertain phase. South Korea’s defence status is more precarious now than it has been since the 1970s, and the higher Trump’s polling numbers climb, if indeed they do start climbing again, the louder this kind of talk is likely to become.
From Seoul’s strategic perspective, ‘the nuclear card’ is actually a hand that can be played incrementally and calibrated for maximum effect. South Korea need not go nuclear in one step, or even officially launch a nuclear program. Instead, it could signal displeasure at the state of the alliance with the United States and/or China’s actions by playing its hand one card at a time: first domestic consultation on the feasibility of a nuclear program, then negotiations with the United States on the configuration of US forces on the peninsula, and then the actual construction process.
If the final stage were reached, involving withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, it would put South Korea in the category of nuclear outlier, whose only other current occupant is North Korea. It would be hugely controversial both within South Korea and in the wider region. But it is being discussed openly at all levels of society today, and public support for it is rising.
Today, the US-ROK alliance remains functional and serves the interests of the two states well; organising the response of regional actors to the DPRK and maintaining US dominance over China. However, there are people in Seoul now thinking about what might happen if South Korea no longer has the US military-industrial complex and US armed forces in its corner. One lesson that certain sections of the Korean right have never forgotten is that only when strong at home can one gain the assistance of foreign powers.
East Asia faces a long-term security dilemma. Regardless of whether South Korea goes nuclear or even threatens to do so, the continued development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles poses a grave threat to peace and stability in the region. North Korea has no interest in giving up what has become a symbol of national prestige, a potent diplomatic bargaining chip, and a final insurance policy against potential invasion. Hence, a nuclear North Korea is here to stay, at least so long as the state remains under the leadership of Kim Jong-un and his coterie. Japan and South Korea have good reason to arm and be ready should Pyongyang engage in more aggressive behavior, not to mention preparing for the small but ever-present possibility of complete collapse in North Korea.
Should the alliance between the United States and South Korea degrade, a military nuclear program in Seoul could become a necessity. Aside from Pyongyang, the threat of a nuclear South Korea would certainly be felt in Beijing; it would set a dangerous precedent for cross-strait relations between Beijing and Taiwan – a foreign policy priority in China, lest we forget. Even talk, let alone concrete action, would trigger discussion of sanctions against the South, an ironic reversal of the status quo. But if Seoul sensed an existential crisis as the US withdrew from the region, risking sanctions would be deemed an acceptable price to pay.