Does South Korea Want Nuclear Weapons?

A Look at the South Korean side while the Nort...

In the wake of North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013, voices emerged again in Seoul calling for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula and even demanding that South Korea arm itself with nuclear weapons. Fortunately, the governments of both countries have dismissed such possibilities, although this has not dampened the calls from those who argue in favor of the nuclear card. And they can turn to the opinion polls to backup their calls. For example, a recent public opinion survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul reveals the degree of support among South Koreans for nuclear weapons. Although the survey was taken shortly after the third nuclear test and showed 66.5% in support of a domestic nuclear weapons program, this number has remained unchanged since September 2012.

Some may wish to interpret this support for nuclear weapons as reflecting concerns among the people in South Korea about the commitment of the United States to defend against North Korea. They may believe that South Koreans are questioning the resolve of the United States and point to the budgetary issues that Washington faces, particularly in regard to sequestering. Others have even gone as far as to suggest that if North Korea can launch nuclear weapons against the United States, the nuclear umbrella will be broken.

Given this situation, the Obama administration has reacted in two main ways to reassure South Korea. One has been to make visible demonstrations of the extended nuclear deterrence and the second has been to express clearly that it will defend South Korea regardless of budgetary restraints. Whether this will be enough to reduce calls in South Korea for nuclear weapons is hard to say. Does this support for nuclear weapons reflect am emerging divide between reassurance and deterrence on the Korean Peninsula?

It is important to consider the definitions of deterrence and reassurance which Michael Howard provides in his article on how this issue affected Western Europe during the Cold War. “The object of deterrence is to persuade an adversary that the costs of seeking a military solution to his political problems will far outweigh the benefits. The object of reassurance is to persuade one’s own people, and those of one’s allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs.” Given this definition, one may begin to understand why some believe that U.S. extended deterrence is not working and hence the questions of commitment. North Korea has not been deterred from carrying out nuclear tests or from carrying out provocations. Following this logic, some may believe that either the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula or even South Korea’s own pursuit of nuclear weapons would begin to make North Korea reconsider the costs of its actions. This has been the argument of many conservative critics in South Korea.

Such actions though would not be possible in the current international environment and would be detrimental to the notion of reassurance that the nuclear option will outweigh the costs. The pursuit of nuclear weapons in South Korea would incur serious costs, such as weakening of its alliance with the United States. The redeployment of nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula would damage relations with China and potentially invoke counteractions by Beijing. Both would play into North Korean fears that the United States is planning a nuclear war against it. Besides, there are no tactical nuclear weapons that can be realistically deployed. Nor is there any need for them given the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Both these facts were recognized by the Obama administration which in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review downplayed the use of tactical nuclear weapons believing that its strategic nuclear arsenal and conventional forces are sufficient.

It would be more accurate to suggest that public support for nuclear weapons likely reflects a sense of frustration with North Korea. Again looking at the Asan public opinion survey on support for nuclear weapons, it shows that a more noticeable change came between 2010 and 2011 when those in favor jumped from 56% to 63%. This would seem to suggest that North Korea’s provocations in 2010 had some impact on the support for nuclear weapons in South Korea. Furthermore, these numbers should be understood within the context of other domestic issues and priorities. Consider that in the same Asan public opinion survey, inter-Korea relations are one of the least important issues on the national agenda. This would make it difficult to translate this support into a genuine national desire for nuclear weapons. People are more concerned with job creation and economic democratization than investing national wealth into the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

It has to also be questioned whether those who advocate the nuclear option understand the dynamics involved. There does exist a misunderstanding of extended deterrence in terms of the need for tactical nuclear weapons to be deployed to the Korean Peninsula. Jeffrey Lewis pointed out similar misunderstandings when he dissected a Joongang Daily article that claimed U.S. nuclear weapons would be kept behind in South Korea after Key Resolve/Foal Eagle. The article mistakenly believed that U.S. warships are armed with nuclear weapons and will be operating in South Korean waters to deter North Korea. Apart from the fact that the U.S. Navy just recently retired from service its tactical nuclear weapons, the article reflects the belief that nuclear weapons must be kept close to South Korea in order to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. In any potential war scenario, nuclear weapons do not need to be kept on or close to the Korean Peninsula. The only reason that tactical nuclear weapons were kept in South Korea during the Cold War was to stop a massive land invasion from North Korea. But as ROK-U.S. conventional capabilities are sufficient and overwhelming enough to halt a conventional attack, the need for tactical nuclear weapons to be kept in South Korea has diminished.

Still, Washington felt the need to publically demonstrate its extended deterrence capability in an effort to quell any doubts. This came in the form of U.S. Air Force B-52H and B-2A bombers, which participated in mock bomb-runs over the Korean Peninsula as part of the recent Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises. Although this was not the first time that such aircrafts were involved in U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, the United States did make a particular point of showcasing their participation. This was widely seen as sending a message to North Korea, but it was arguably more directed at South Korea as a gesture of reassurance. Will such public displays of force push back the calls for nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula? Not so much. As long as the nuclear question remains unresolved, the voices in favor of nuclear weapons for South Korea will continue to sound. It is important to keep in mind the context in which these voices sound.


Is Kim Jong-un a Rational Actor? Overcoming the Legacy of Songun

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Over the past week, North Korea has significantly increased the pressure on South Korean and the United States through threatening statements and actions. In particular, the international media expressed concern about war breaking out following the March 30 official statement which stated that “north-south relations will be put at the state of war and all the issues arousing between the north and the south will be dealt with according to the wartime regulations.” This statement, however, was a little misleading as the situation on the Korean Peninsula is technically in a state of war. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Pyongyang was trying to articulate its perception that inter-Korean relations are now back to how they were at the end of the Korean War. For North Korea, the past ten years of cooperation and engagement was a period of “peace,” which it now considers over.

Along with other official statements by North Korea that talk of the Korean Peninsula being on the verge of nuclear war, it is difficult to see where all these threats and tough words are heading to. Does Kim Jong-un have an endgame or “exit” strategy for this current round of tensions?

There was a lot more optimism a year ago. At that time, Kim Jong-un began to exhibit a different leadership style from his father. This was apparent when the younger Kim gave an unprecedented public speech at the commemoration of Kim Il-sung’s centenary on April 15, 2012. Along with visits to theme parks and music concerts where Disney characters made a cameo, it became clear that Kim Jong-un was a more engaging and charismatic leader. By contrast, Kim Jong-il only spoke a few words in public and preferred to keep a lower profile. Some analysts began to see the potential for change in North Korea based on Kim Jong-un’s unique leadership-style and apparent focus on reviving the economy, possibly even at the expense of his father’s legacy; Songun or military-first politics.

However, the younger Kim’s approach to foreign affairs and national security has shown that Songun is very much alive. His policies to the United States and South Korea have also revealed much about some of the domestic challenges he faces and that seem to be driving his decisions now. In the past, Kim Jong-il would increase tensions, back down, and then pursue what South Korean scholars refer to as a “peace offensive.” Consider what happened in early 2009. North Korea conducts its satellite launch, the international community responds with UN sanctions, and a nuclear test is conducted in response. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton makes a private visit to free two hostages which is portrayed in North Korea as a political victory, they back down and the “peace offensive” begins. There was an apparent rationality to Kim Jong-il’s approach to the outside world. In this context, can Kim Jong-un be considered as a rational actor? Before answering that directly, consider the following three difficulties Kim Jong-un faces.

First, Kim Jong-un has yet to establish his own political slogan representing his legacy. He has inherited two legacies or narratives of North Korea that his politics must link with. The first is Kim Il-sung’s Juche which is the narrative of how Korea secured it independence and the state was established. The second is Songun which is how this achievement was secured amid a negative external environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a unipolar world order under U.S. leadership. Deriving his legitimacy from the Mt. Paektu bloodline, Kim Jong-un must develop his own legacy within this framework. This will naturally take time. Until then he will find himself completely constrained by his father’s Songun politics which does not offer him any exit strategy from the country’s current difficulties. Given that Kim Jong-un has already enshrined his father’s legacy and its achievements in the constitution, which includes the development nuclear weapons, he cannot just simply discard Songun.

Second, Kim Jong-un faces difficulties within his regime. Recent rumors in South Korea have speculated that there was an assassination attempt against Kim Jong-un in the summer of 2012 and that this accounts for his current tough policies. While the rumors were based on one unnamed source, the dismissal last summer of Ri Yong-ho who was chief of the army was a significant event that still has not been fully explained. Some have pointed to the fact that he was in conflict with Choe Ryong Hae, the political chief of the military. Such conflict and competition among senior figures within the regime is of concern. The abrupt dismissal of Ri Yong-ho showed that there are very few people in Pyongyang who are safe in their jobs. Living under such pressure, few would be willing to propose engagement policies that could be easily attacked as deviating from Songun politics.

Third, related to this first point and reflecting the difficulties in the second point, is that without an established policy by Kim Jong-un there is nothing for elites within the regime to take lead from. Currently, these elites can only operate within the confines of Juche and Songun and Kim Jong-un is final arbitrator as to whether these policies are correct within the context. It’s difficult for senior figure within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to suggest opening up dialogue with South Korea when most people would interpret that as going against the fundamental principles of Songun. Added to this difficulty is the fact that Kim Jong-un has to show that he can be a strong wartime commander among any potential skeptics within the regime or even populace as a whole. As Aidan Foster-Carter said, “Young, untried and by some accounts hot-headed, like a new Mafia boss succeeding his father, he may feel he has to show all concerned-his own team, as well as his many foes-that he is a tough guy, no pushover.”

To answer the main question, is Kim Jong-un a rational actor, it can be said that he is a rational actor within the limits of the North Korean regime. Until we see him push forward his own politics, and one that is more focused on reviving the economy, there will always be half-hearted measures for economic development interrupted by the latest confrontation with the outside world. One silver-lining to this dark cloud is the fact that the emphasis on developing light industries is still there. It is interesting to note that throughout March 2012, the only non-military appearance by Kim Jong-un was at the Light Industry Workers National Meeting on March 18. A radical change is possible, but it is difficult to see how it will happen now. Kim Jong-un’s New Year Address for 2013 should have be a sign that this year would follow along the Songun path when he stated “‘Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space!’ — this is the fighting slogan our Party and people should uphold this year.” Maybe we will have to wait for the next New Year’s Address for signs that he will established his own politics.