Q&A: After N. Korean Test, Should South Korea Go Nuclear?

Q&A: After N. Korean Test, Should South Korea Go Nuclear?

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Ed. Note: Soon after North Korea conducted its third and to date most powerful test of a nuclear device on Feb. 12, calls emerged in South Korea pushing for the country to develop its own nuclear deterrent. As the country prepares for the inauguration on Monday of President-elect Park Geun-hye - whose own father, the late President Park Chung-hee, is credited with attempting to develop the country’s first nuclear program thirty years earlier - the question of how best to respond to the North Korean threat is perhaps one of the key challenges facing the new administration. NAM editor Peter Schurmann spoke with Ploughshares Fund Executive Director Philip Yun about the impact of the North’s latest test and the likelihood of an arms race in East Asia.

New America Media: Does North Korea's most recent nuclear test change the security equation in East Asia?

Korean Americans Weigh In

Despite not having our own nuclear weapons, we should have the right to reprocessing facilities at least like Japan. It could be a warning against North Korea, and a security guarantee for ourselves in case the U.S. lifts its nuclear umbrella over South Korea.
-- Dong Kim, Publisher, Hyundae News U.S.A, Oakland, Calif.

It’s been over 60 years since the division of Korea into North and South. If power worked to curb power, the unification of the two divided countries would have already happened. Look at the former Soviet Union, which had nuclear weapons and a powerful army but fell nonetheless. Both South and North Korea need to consider peaceful alternatives.
-- Kyung-chan Kim, Pastor, Richmond Korean Baptist Church, Richmond, Calif.

I agree that South Korea should not limit itself in terms of military capabilities, including nuclear, for defensive purposes. But the reality of that is challenging. If South Korea withdrew from the NPT, it could damage the country’s standing internationally. Therefore, South Korea should consider re-deploying tactical nuclear weapons. That would give it a strategic advantage in dealing with neighboring countries.
-- Seung-bum Park, Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, Merced

I don’t believe that North Korea’s nuclear program is aimed at South Korea. And so I don’t see a need for Seoul to pursue a domestic nuclear program.
-- Grace Lee, Businesswoman, San Francisco

First, the North Korean regime must immediately abandon the development of nuclear weapons. We urge North Korea to return to the monitoring system established under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Secondly, Korean American organizations across the United States will work together to sustain a multifaceted effort to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula. Third, we support and stand by the international communities’ efforts to impose sanctions against North Korea for its ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons.
-- Statement, The Korean American Association of Greater New York

Philip Yun: North Korea’s nuclear test and its missile tests are certainly very provocative and there is a chance of increased instability and rising tensions. There’s no doubt, it’s not good news in any way, shape or form.

There’s a tendency in the past for [the United States] to have underestimated North Korea … [after previous tests] they were sort of ridiculed as a joke. This [test] shows that they have to be taken seriously, but at the same time we can’t overreact. Despite the potential for instability and rising tensions, fundamentally the security situation in Asia and East Asia has not changed over the short term. The reality is that the military balance on the Korean Peninsula is very strongly in favor of South Korea, the United States and our allies. If North Korea decided to do something very provocative, or tried to do something preemptively they would cease to exist and I think they know that.

NAM: You mentioned the security situation has not changed in the short term. What about the long-term?

Yun: Over the medium-to-longer term, there are some serious issues. One is that eventually, if North Korea continues as they are, they could develop a weapon that can potentially strike the United States. But there’s also another question that I’m quite frankly even more concerned about, which is the possibility of loose nukes.

We know there is concern about the medium-to-long term stability of North Korea. If they, for example, have a highly enriched uranium program they then have a new source of nuclear material and you just can’t throw that away once you produce it. So if there is some instability in North Korea, there’s a chance that that stuff is going to get out of the country and into the hands of someone or some organization that has the intent to do us harm.

NAM: A growing chorus of influential voices in South Korea arose soon after the North’s test calling for the country to rearm itself. How likely of a prospect do you think this is?

Yun: Given the stress that South Korea is under, with these kinds of tests and the [North’s] missile launches, there’s certainly been a history of reaction and overreaction. So we have to take it seriously. But for South Korea to leave the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be a big mistake … it establishes a precedent of different countries leaving for different reasons and I don’t think that’s something we want to consider at this point.

That said, I don’t discount the fact that there are serious voices inside South Korea who firmly believe that [the country] should have its own nuclear deterrent. But I don’t agree with that assessment. The modern world has shown that while nuclear weapons have had their role, they are now more of a liability than an asset. And with South Korea’s military strength and that of the United States, when it comes to deterrent purposes, nuclear weapons probably don’t make a lot of sense for South Korea.

NAM: Some in South Korea have questioned the long-term U.S. commitment to the region, noting that with several nuclear-armed neighbors - China, Russia and India among them -- a domestic nuclear deterrent is the only way to ensure security.

Yun: Well, the U.S. staying power in Asia has been a concern since the end of the Cold War. It’s something that people [in the United States] who feel the region is important have had to deal with for many, many years. But I think the Obama administration’s pivot to East Asia is a signal of how strongly committed the current administration and future administrations - whether Republican or Democrat - are going to be. So people can fret about that, but ultimately what one has to see is what actions we’ve taken and what kind of policies we have.

NAM: Given its commitment to Asia, what role do you see for the United States in curbing what some fear could be a potential arms race in the region?

Yun: What we call the “nuclear cascade” has always been a concern. North Korea has a nuclear deterrent, so South Korea is going to do it and Japan … Security people have always taken that as a given, but there is research now that shows that isn’t necessarily the case. I know there’s research being done with respect to the Middle East and what’s going on in Iran, and whether [its nuclear ambitions] mean other countries will necessarily arm.

It still remains to be seen if that is in fact going to be the case in East Asia. I do think it’s something we have to seriously guard against and I think that’s what the United States should be thinking about. You know, we’re a global player, so there are many things we can do globally as well as regionally to show leadership with respect to that. One would be to establish a universal standard and I think that ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would be one way in which it can show that leadership. I know those are things that are being considered right now.

In addition, the United States and China need to talk more strategically about where they see the region going as well. Along with having that conversation - bilaterally and multilaterally - the United States and China need to have a very clear understanding over the future of the Korean Peninsula. You know, North Korea is not going to stay North Korea forever. Things are going to change.

Philip Yun is Executive Director of Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based non-profit working to promote global security and focusing on non-proliferation issues. An expert on political affairs in North East Asia, between 1998 and 2001 Yun served as a senior member of the U.S. delegation to the Korea peace talks based in Geneva, Switzerland and participated in high-level U.S. negotiations and discussions with North Korea. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Additional reporting by Aruna Lee