Why Are South Koreans Losing Faith in America’s Nuclear Umbrella? | CNN



They have them, so we need them.

That is the fundamental argument for South Koreans who want their country to develop its own nuclear weapons. It is about the need to protect itself against an aggressive northern neighbor that is already a nuclear power in all but name and whose leader Kim Jong-un has promised to have an “exponential increase” in its arsenal.

The counterargument, which has long deterred Seoul from chasing the bomb, lies in its likely consequences. Developing nuclear weapons would not only disrupt the country’s relationship with the United States, it would likely lead to sanctions that could strangle Seoul’s access to nuclear energy. Not to mention the regional arms race it would almost inevitably provoke.

But which side of the argument South Koreans are on seems to be changing.

Ten years ago, invoking South Korean nuclear weapons was a fringe idea that received little serious attention. Today it has become a mainstream discussion.

Recent polls show that a majority of South Koreans support their country with its own nuclear weapons program; a series of prominent academics who once shunned the idea have switched sides; even President Yoon Suk Yeol has floated the idea.

So what has changed?

For supporters, Seoul developing its own nuclear weapons would finally answer the age-old question, “Would Washington risk San Francisco for Seoul in the event of nuclear war?”

Currently, South Korea falls under Washington’s Comprehensive Deterrence Strategy, which includes the nuclear umbrella, meaning the US is obligated to provide assistance in the event of an attack.

For some, that’s reassuring enough. But the details of exactly what form that “help” might take are not entirely clear. As that age-old question points out, faced with the possibility of a retaliatory nuclear strike on American soil, Washington would have compelling reasons to limit its involvement.

Maybe it’s better not to ask the question. As Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute puts it, “If South Korea has nuclear weapons, we can respond to North Korea’s attack ourselves, so there is no reason for the United States to get involved.”

There are other reasons for South Koreans to question their decades-long leap of faith in US protection. Donald Trump looms among them. The former US president, citing the charges, made no secret of wanting to withdraw 28,500 US troops from South Korea and questioned why the US should protect the country. Given that Trump has already announced his presidential bid for the 2024 election, that’s an issue that’s still on people’s minds.

“The U.S. just isn’t seen as trustworthy as it once was,” said Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “Even if the Biden administration behaves like a traditional US administration and sends all the right reassuring signals to South Korea… policymakers will have to keep in mind the possibility that the US may once again elect a government that takes a different approach to South Korea. Korea.”

But the loss of confidence goes beyond Trump.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul on August 17, 2022.

More recently, President Yoon Suk Yeol floated the idea of ​​moving tactical nuclear weapons from the US to the peninsula or allowing South Korea to have “its own nuclear capabilities” if the North Korean threat grows. Washington’s rejection of both ideas was striking. When Yoon said this month that Seoul and Washington were discussing joint nuclear exercises, President Joe Biden was asked the same day if such talks were indeed underway. He simply replied, “No.”

In response to Yoon’s comments, U.S. Department of Defense Press Secretary Brig. General Pat Ryder reiterated the US commitment to the Extended Deterrence Strategy, saying that “to date (the strategy) has worked and has worked very well.”

In a Chosun Ilbo newspaper interview published on Jan. 2, Yoon said of these assurances, “It’s hard to convince our people with that.”

But in another interview last week with The Wall Street Journal on Davos’ sidelines, Yoon responded to those comments, saying, “I have every confidence in the U.S.’s comprehensive deterrence.”

An inconsistent message rarely calms the concerns on both sides of the argument.

On Thursday, the US think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), proposed what may appear to be a middle ground: creating “a framework for joint nuclear planning” that could “help build stronger bonds of trust among allies in the current environment.”

It said this framework “could be similar to a NATO nuclear weapons use planning group, with planning conducted bilaterally and trilaterally (with Japan) and control remaining in the hands of the United States.”

But the CSIS made it clear that it did not support “deploying US tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula or approving South Korea to purchase its own nuclear weapons.”

Also other experts, such as Professor Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation at the Middlebury Institute in California, see joint planning and exercises as “more realistic options than nuclear weapons or nuclear sharing”.

For some in Yoon’s conservative party, that’s simply not enough. They see a nuclear-weapon-free South Korea threatened by a nuclear-armed North Korea and want nothing less than US nuclear weapons redeployed to the Korean Peninsula.

They seem destined to be disappointed. Washington moved its tactical weapons from South Korea in 1991 after decades of deployment and there are no signs it will consider reversing that decision.

“Putting US nuclear weapons back on the peninsula makes no military sense,” said Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner.

“They’re currently on very hard to find, very hard to target weapons platforms and to take weapons from them and put them in a bunker in South Korea, which is a very attractive target for North Korea. What you have done is that you have compromised your abilities.”

As a result, many South Koreans see only one option – and some are losing patience.

Cheong, a recent convert to South Korea who acquired the bomb, believes the Extended Deterrence Strategy has already reached its limit in dealing with North Korea and that only a nuclear-armed South Korea can prevent war.

“North Korea, of course, does not want nuclear weapons from South Korea. Now they can ignore the South Korean army,” Cheong said.

“But they must be nervous because if South Korea decides to chase the bomb, it will have the nuclear material to make more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.”

Yet it is not just the fear of disrupting relations with the US that is holding Seoul back from such a course. If South Korea were to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the effect on its domestic nuclear energy system would likely be rapid and devastating.

“First of all, the group of nuclear suppliers would cut off nuclear fuel to South Korea, which relies on third-party suppliers for all of its nuclear fuel. It could lead to international sanctions,” Klingner said.

South Korean and US jets take part in a joint aerial exercise on November 18, 2022.

Then there is the regional arms race it would likely provoke, with neighboring China making it clear it will not tolerate such a build-up.

“Probably China will become unhappy and will essentially stop at nothing to prevent South Korea from going nuclear,” said Professor Andrei Lankov, a senior North Korea expert from Kookmin University.

Given the likely consequences, Seoul might be better off taking comfort in the guarantees already being offered by the US.

“The 28,500 US troops on the peninsula have a very real tripwire effect. If hostilities break out between the two Koreas, it is simply inevitable for the US not to get involved. We have skin in the game,” Panda said.

Finally, there are also those who warn that even if South Korea acquired nuclear weapons, the problems would hardly go away.

“So the funny thing about nukes is your guns don’t compensate for their guns,” said Lewis of the Middlebury Institute.

“Look at Israel. Israel is nuclear-armed and terrified of Iran getting nuclear weapons, so Israel’s nuclear weapons do not in any fundamental way outweigh the threat they feel from Iran’s nuclear weapons.”

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