By expressing an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, South Korea is demonstrating an urgent determination to secure enhanced security assurances from the United States as the nuclear threat from North Korea grows, experts say.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said at a policy briefing on January 11 that Seoul could either build nuclear weapons or have them redeployed to the country to counter Pyongyang.
While South Korea has discussed over the years the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons, this marked the first time a South Korean president had expressed an interest in the arms since the U.S. withdrew them from the Korean Peninsula in 1991.
Yoon’s remarks came after Pyongyang’s New Year’s Day call for an “exponential increase” in the country’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea launched more than 90 ballistic and cruise missiles last year, a record.
“One interpretation of Yoon’s recent remarks is that they suggest a desire for more than merely a U.S.-ROK ‘alliance’ in the way that they have existed up to now, from the perspective of the South Korean administration,” said Edward Howell, a lecturer on North Korea at Oxford University in England. South Korea’s official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK).
The remarks “epitomize a sense of frustration that he wants more than simply a ‘security guarantee’ from the United States,” Howell said.
South Korea is protected by the policy of extended deterrence, under which the U.S. promises to use a range of its military assets, including nuclear weapons, to provide a so-called “nuclear umbrella” to defend the country against threats, including ones from North Korea.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, told VOA Korean that Washington and Seoul have already been engaged in dialogue about security assurances against North Korean threats “as a matter of urgency.” These were discussed in a recent Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group meeting.
At the September 16 meeting in Washington, the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to use wide-ranging capabilities including nuclear weapons and to bolster information sharing, training, and “better use of tabletop exercises” to counter North Korean threats, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Defense.
The tabletop exercises, launched in 2011 and held annually but only twice during the 2017-22 administration of Moon Jae-in, are aimed at responding to North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons. A table-top exercise is a discussion-based session "where team members meet in an informal, classroom setting to discuss their roles during an emergency and their responses to a particular emergency situation,” according to ready.gov.
In February, the U.S. and South Korea plan to hold tabletop exercises “on operating means of extended deterrence under the scenario of North Korea’s nuclear attacks,” followed by “more concrete and substantive” exercises in May, said South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup on January 11, according to a Reuters article.
When asked at a press briefing on Tuesday whether the U.S. and South Korea plan to use U.S. nuclear assets in the extended deterrence drills next month, Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder said, “We will continue to focus on training and making sure that we can be interoperable when it comes to working together.”
'United States needs to do more'
Some experts think Washington should do more to provide nuclear security assurances to Seoul. Their suggestions range from discussing plans for employing and operating nuclear weapons to considering a nuclear-sharing option, which would allow Seoul to jointly operate U.S. nuclear weapons with Washington.
“Although I think it would be a bad idea for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States needs to do more to make sure that Seoul is comfortable with America’s extended guarantees,” said Zack Cooper, former special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy at the Defense Department during the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush who was interviewed by email.
Cooper continued to write, “That could take the form of more engagement on nuclear planning, but it will also require that the United States talk in detail with South Korea about why an independent nuclear capability (or even nuclear sharing arrangement) would be counterproductive.”
On the other hand, Daryl Press, director of the Institute for Global Security at Dartmouth College, thinks nuclear sharing or South Korea having its own nuclear weapons could add to its deterrence.
“Giving South Korean leaders meaningful control over their country’s own deterrent force, through Korean nuclear sharing or an independent ROK arsenal, would substantially reduce these credibility problems and strengthen deterrence,” Press said.
Mirroring the nuclear sharing option used by NATO, South Korea's would entail joint planning and using U.S. nuclear weapons deployed to bases in the country.
It would also involve joint nuclear exercises because both South Korean and U.S. aircraft and pilots would bomb enemy target areas when necessary. The U.S. would transfer control of the nuclear weapons to South Korea if North Korea crossed an agreed-upon nuclear threshold, Press said.
An option to deploy nuclear weapons to South Korea would not involve joint drills. The weapons would be delivered by U.S. aircraft and pilots for South Korea to drop on an adversary, according to U.S. plans after both countries agree their use is necessary.
South Korea is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bans countries from pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.
Thomas Countryman, who recently served as acting undersecretary of arms control and international security under the Biden administration, said, “It would not be appropriate for the U.S. to give the ROK military experience in handling nuclear weapons.”
He continued, “But there’s no limitation on what the good allies can discuss” on nuclear weapons although “there are certain limits to what can be done physically” to utilize the weapons jointly.
Countryman also said that although others might disagree, redeploying U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea would not contradict the NPT. But the redeployment would “not make a significant military difference” or add much deterrent value.
By initiating a nuclear program, however, Seoul would violate the NPT, damage its international reputation and ties with Washington, and hamper U.S. efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, Countryman said.
Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “It is not clear if South Korean nuclear capabilities would reduce the actual threat or expand it.”
“The common aim here," he continued, "is to take actions that reduce the risk of miscalculation.”