October 21, 2022
SEOUL – If, just if, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration of South Korea decides to go nuclear to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea, it will have to deal first with the leftist opposition inside the country before trying to win support from its allies.
Actually, voices are growing in the intellectual community of South Korea, calling for the development of the nation’s own nuclear arms capability as Pyongyang rachets up its saber-rattling these past weeks with the test-firing of missiles of various ranges allegedly capable of delivering tactical nuclear warheads to “enemy targets.”
Media commentators, academics and strategic thinkers are engaged in heated debates about options the republic has to take in order to maintain the security balance on the Korean Peninsula under the thinking that only nuclear power can deter a nuclear threat. While members of the ruling People Power Party are generally turning in favor of creating a nuclear arsenal of our own, their opponents in the Democratic Party are raising objections on this crucial issue.
Prudence is what the leftist opposition are asking for from the pro-nuclear voices in the right-wing circles, departing from their usual radical approach to political issues. Lee Jae-myung, the present DP head and the unsuccessful presidential candidate in the March election, for example, warned against “unnecessarily inflaming hostility and inviting a crisis” with provocative words and deeds toward the North.
He said so during a National Assembly committee session questioning Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup on how the military was coping with the current situation of North Korean missiles being fired to the East and West Seas almost on a daily basis. He emphasized solemnly, “The best thing is winning without fighting and even better is creating a situation where fighting is not needed, which means peace.”
The Assembly sitting was held last week, while the Northern regime was making the most spectacular arms demonstrations in recent years, firing 12 ballistic missiles and two cruise missiles in eight separate launching events in 18 days from Sep. 25. One of the cruise missiles flew for nearly 2 1/2 hours along oval and figure-8 flight orbits to hit the target 2,000 kilometers away.
Pyongyang’s official media boasted that these cruise missiles, operated by the tactical nuclear operations unit of the (North) Korean People’s Army could carry nuclear warheads. North Korean chief Kim Jong-un personally supervised this test-firing operation that proved, according to the Korean Central News Agency, “the accuracy, technical superiority and combat effectiveness” of the weapon.
Our military leaders were apparently shocked by the irregular, low-altitude flight of the cruise missile and the launching of a SLBM from underwater in a lake, shown in TV footage, which meant that the South Korean anti-missile system needed a lot of further development to detect and destroy it. Experts are concerned that the threefold war paradigm of “Kill Chain” preemptive strike, the “KAMD” missile defense and the “KMPR” massive retaliation may still be reliable but imperfect.
Let us now give some thoughts to why Kim Jong-un is spending so much of his meager treasury on flying the heavy pieces of metal into the air. While the North has been conducting nuclear tests six times since 2006 and extending the ranges of ballistic missiles to the distance of the whole Korean Peninsula, to Japan, Guam, Hawaii and finally to the continental US, it has consistently asserted the objective of self-defense.
For some time, there were people, particularly among the leftist politicians, who believed or at least hoped that the North’s nuclear ambition could be traded off with generous external aid. The “Sunshine Policy” of warm appeasement initiated by the Kim Dae-jung administration was retrieved by president Moon Jae-in who briefly engaged president Trump in the sorry dream of denuclearization.
Now it seems the nuclear drama of North Korea has arrived at the final stage with the combat deployment of tactical nuclear arms in the Korean theater. It should inevitably compel a revision in the extended deterrence concept of the US nuclear umbrella as strategic thinkers here have begun doubting the effectiveness of the alliances between the US, South Korea and Japan, which basically are a system of indirect protection.
The simple, worst scenario will be that a North Korean attack with tactical nuclear weapons, in the event the allies fail in preemptive strike, leads to the US pounding North Korean targets with nuclear missiles. This would risk North Korean retaliation against US cities with its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Skeptics here are concerned that US citizens might not allow their president push the nuclear button when their place faces the danger of destruction.
President Yoon Suk-yeol said all options were open on how to respond to North Korea’s unlimited escalation in its nuclear and missile threats, for which they can longer borrow the self-defense rhetoric. On the table are the continued reliance on the US’ extended deterrence commitment, the nuclear sharing formula of some European Union members, and finally the development of South Korea’s own nuclear capabilities.
Washington has shown no sign that it would compromise on its global non-proliferation regime for South Korea, although its officials are aware that Seoul can invoke Article X of the NPT which allows signatories to withdraw when “extraordinary events have jeopardized (their) supreme interests” as is the case for South Korea. This is an area of diplomacy for Seoul to win the acquiescence of the US and other neighbors for nuclear armament. Technology poses little problem.
Even harder here will be creating a national consensus about going nuclear in a severely divided country. If and when the Yoon Suk-yeol government takes the nuclear initiative to break the denuclearization fantasy it will eclipse all other national agenda and will need to be decided through a national referendum.
Past leftist administrations made consistent efforts to realize direct inter-Korean dialogue to ease military tension and take joint steps toward reunification, in total futility, however. Now, the right-wingers are going the opposite course to achieve the same goal — from a position of strength with an economic scale 40 times bigger than the country’s adversary.
It is time for the leftists to make an earnest decision to abandon their ambiguous pacifist stance and cooperate with the government to open a new era of real peace and security on this peninsula. The Republic of Korea will have no future if the political community fails to prevent further splitting of our society into pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear forces.