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An Unwelcome Host: Proliferation, South Korea, and Role of United States Assurances

By: Martin Sigalow To the chagrin of more dignified, reverent Southeast Asian countries, South Korea has a crazy uncle. Without even mentioning the family-reunion-taboo subjects of his destitution, anger management issues and his self-imposed social isolation, North Korea constantly throws its bulk around at parties, blathering loudly about “sovereignty” or “supreme leaders” while generally making the South quite anxious to leave. But alas, despite the strong pressure of the wiser parts of the human clan, North Korea seems content on giving the world a nuclear hot case of embarrassment.

The focus of this piece need not be on the mad uncle himself, who has received far too many professional diagnoses for an amateur analyzer such as myself to combine, but rather ought to be on his nephew in the south. South Korea has been trying to distance itself as much as possible from that guy who lives in the basement. However, when North Korea takes up the pastime of clumsily juggling nuclear weapons, things get a little complicated. The goal of this paper is to investigate possible causes for South Korean nuclear proliferation, in light of and in spite of the presence of the North. The presence of North Korean and U.S. influences on South Korean leadership and the risk of proliferation is quite complex, and to attempt to find all the answers in this short paper would be an act of a well-rested god; at least one of those two things I am currently not. I will concern myself with the motivations for proliferation as well as the factors that the nations take into account.

The first factor is continued North Korean proliferation. A perceived North Korean nuclear threat is highly correlated with the success of nationalist and pro-nuclear expansion movements in South Korea and Japan. If North Korean proliferation, an issue which is always on Washington’s radar despite the minimal press coverage it gets, is not stopped through either internal or external means, South Korea has a major incentive to expand its nuclear program despite US security assurances.[1]

However, states are never motivated to acquire nuclear weapons based off of the mere existence of a dangerous rival in the region. Rather, the drive to acquire nuclear weapons is always intimately tied to the perception of the potential nuclear state, because the reaction of any military force to a threat can only be a response to the military planners’ interpretation of the threat to be. Perception matters; after all, as mere mortals not blessed with omniscience, military planners only have access to their own subjective interpretation of that threat through cognitive constructs.

In the particular case of South Korea, the perceived inadequacy of the United States’ security assurances directly impact South Korean calculations for proliferation. Through a combination of strategically increasing forward troop deployments in South Korea during times of particularly high tensions and strong diplomatic assurances, the U.S. has historically kept South Korea quite satisfied. [2] In this regard, South Korean commitment to non-proliferation seems inextricably bound to the relations between the countries. Through sheer diplomatic force of will, the U.S. has managed to make its obvious military superiority sufficient to dissuade South Korea from a mindset of military deterrence.

The importance of the U.S. as an actor to influence South Korea decision-making when it comes to nuclear weapons policy cannot be underscored enough. Past efforts for South Korea to develop its own offensive weapons program were halted after intense resistance from the U.S.[3] Clandestine efforts in the 1970s were even met with the threat of civilian nuclear energy cooperation and the threat of the renunciation of U.S. commitments to deterrence. South Korea responded to these threats not only by giving up these particular weapons ambitions, but also by structurally inhibiting their ability to pursue such policies in the future by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would seem that the U.S. is quite committed, at least in word, to South Korean security.

Nor is the States’ commitment to South Korea welfare merely a diplomatic matter. Indeed, U.S. claims to defend South Korea from aggression are inherently credible. The U.S. has an interest in preventing violence on the Korean peninsula, in fear both of the economic devastation wrought by the obliteration of one of the world’s largest economies (South Korea is 13th in the world) and of the possibility that any war on the peninsula would ignite a broader conflagration across Asia involving other world powers with nuclear weapons, such as Russia or China. Not to be overlooked is the sizable number of troops that the U.S. has stationed across South Korea whose lives would swiftly be lost in any sufficiently large Korean conflict. As such, the U.S. “stake” in South Korea interests is sufficiently big enough to give U.S. intervention and wartime protection credibility.[4]

Another key issue to consider is nuclear power. South Korea possessed at least 20 distinct reactors by 2011, which together supply upwards of 45% of the nation’s power supply,[5] a colossally large percentage compared to any other country but Japan. Though largely safe from proliferation due to an incredibly sophisticated set of export controls,[6] South Korea considerations of nuclear reprocessing are making some worry about possible proliferation concerns.[7] Spent fuel reprocessing allows a nation to use spent fuel output from nuclear reactors as inputs in the generation of more nuclear energy. The ability to use output as input clearly increases the capacity of energy a nation can generate from its nuclear reactors, which makes it an attractive option for the South Korean government in a world where reliable energy is increasingly hard to come by, and in a world where international competition over nuclear energy components and supply is fierce. [8]

However, reprocessing as a technical process involves the enrichment of spent uranium, which can be built into a nuclear weapon or stolen in transit and made into one. This could become a significant proliferation concern, as potential reprocessing could generate thousands of nuclear bombs worth of weapons grade nuclear material that might be compromised in the inevitable logistical nightmare of transporting that fuel to a disposal site elsewhere.[9] It is worth noting that the U.S. also is a key influence in this aspect of South Korean proliferation. Bilateral trade deals, as well as strategic partnerships, have made the U.S. the key broker of safe nuclear technology and materials. [10] No doubt a weaker relationship would threaten this aspect of nuclear non-proliferation as well.

The U.S. clearly has an important role determining the extent of South Korean proliferation. Although I will forgo another toothless proposal for six party talks (that horse has been decomposing for some time now, so there is little left to beat), I will offer the up the idea that a positive reaffirmation of the benefit of a U.S. role in Korean affairs could go a long way to ensure peace in a site normally reserved for hyperbolic forecasts of conflagration. To that end, the U.S. should take tangible diplomatic action through means such as, perhaps, deploying more troops, improving relations, or, as some suggest, reaffirming U.S. willingness to retaliate with nuclear or overwhelming conventional force should the north get any funny ideas. Doing these things could go a long way to giving wider range to the U.S. nuclear umbrella, or at least make it more dangerous to touch at the tip.

Lincoln once famously said “a house divided cannot stand,” no doubt in reference to the predicament I have just described. As familial domestic metaphors come, this one is hard to beat, although in this case the “divide” is an all-too-real place called the “demilitarized zone.” One can only hope that this particular defunct member of the global family will stop trying to sell bad things to the kids, or at least pay rent.


[1] Hayes, Peter and Hamel-Green, Michael, “Paths to Peace on the Peninsula: the Case for a Japan-Korea Nuclear Weapon Free Zone,” Security Challenges journal, Winter 2011, accessed November 2012.

[2] Keifer, Michael H., “Assuring South Korea and Japan as the Role and Number of U.S. Nuclear Weapons are Reduced,” January 2011, Defense Threat Reduction Agency Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (Department of Defense), January 2011, accessed November 2012.

[3] Bergner, Jonathan, “Going Nuclear: Does the NPT Matter?” Georgetown University Master’s Thesis Program, April 15, 2011, accessed November 2012.

[4] Ibid 2

[5] Ibid 3

[6] Snyder, Scott, “Counterproliferation and Global Korea,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 9, 2012, accessed November 2012.

[7] Kim, Duyeon, “South Korea's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, November 16, 2012, accessed November 2012.

[8] ibid

[9] Lovins, Amory, “’New’ nuclear reactors, same old story,” Rocky Mountain Institute, March 21, 2009, accessed August 2012.

[10] Ibid 3

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