Asia Pacific

South Korea developing its own nukes one solution to U.S. cost-sharing demands, ex-top diplomat says

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

With Washington reportedly demanding that South Korea pay more to have U.S. troops stationed in the country, a former South Korean foreign minister says he has a solution for Seoul: the development of its own nuclear arsenal.

Song Min-soon, who also once served as the country’s chief negotiator for the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, suggested in an editorial Monday in the JoongAng Ilbo daily that one way Seoul could seek to share the base-hosting burden is by building up its own arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

“It’s necessary for South Korea to move on to a self-reliant alliance from a dependent alliance,” he wrote, adding that “a defensive nuclear capacity, with a missile range limited to the Korean Peninsula, is justified.”

Song wrote that military imbalances on the Korean Peninsula “are due to (the North’s) nuclear capabilities, not conventional arms,” noting that the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” currently is employed to deter North Korea and protect the South from attack.

But, he said, with reported demands that Seoul cough up even more cash for the stationing of U.S. forces in the South — and the repercussions of acceding to these demands — it was time to “reconsider” the building of its own nukes, specifically “limited tactical nuclear weapons.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, whose view of allies as freeloaders is well known, is now reportedly pushing for an unprecedented fivefold increase in South Korea’s contribution, stoking concerns about Washington’s commitment to Seoul.

This is likely to have a knock-on effect for the other major U.S. ally in East Asia — Japan, which will hold similar negotiations next year.

Song touched on this in his editorial, saying Trump was likely using the South Korean negotiations “to obtain significant concessions before presenting those as the standard for other countries” such as Japan.

While talk about going nuclear has remained a relatively fringe discussion until recent years, “a growing chorus of voices in South Korea has given up on the rosy fantasy of disarming Kim Jong Un and is instead calling for arming the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ with destructive nuclear weapons,” Lee Byong-chul, an assistant professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, wrote late last month on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website.

Lee cited a September 2017 Gallup poll that found 60 percent of South Koreans supported nuclear armament, while just 35 percent were opposed.

Song’s remarks Monday were not the first time he had broached the issue.

During a Sept. 30 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, he said that “the Republic of Korea taking its own measures to create a nuclear balance on the peninsula” was a “widely touted” option.

“It is not surprising that a growing number of South Korean people support the option,” he said.

Lee pointed to Song’s statement as proof of the changing mindset among even those not on the fringes of the debate.

“Such a statement is strong evidence of just how far moderate proponents of nonproliferation have shifted,” he wrote.

Still, going nuclear would be no easy task for South Korea. A plethora of obstacles stand in the way, including technical feasibility issues, political wherewithal and global pacts such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

A nuclear-armed South Korea would also upend the regional security architecture in a number of ways, potentially giving Japan a reason to also build its own atomic weapons program.