Renuclearizing the Korean Peninsula

Recently, a nuclear engineering professor at a prestigious university in Seoul hinted in an op-ed piece that technologically South Korea would be capable of developing nuclear weapons within six months if it chose.

The scientist’s argument was instantly buried, as if nothing had happened. But make no mistake. There is growing sentiment in South Korea among the right wing for a nuclear weaponization program. Some radical conservatives are inclined to support the views of the conservative journalist Kim Dae-jung of Chosun Ilbo and Rep. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Grand National Party in particular as nuclear weapons enthusiasts.

Aside from the wishful thinking that South Korea could actually divert nuclear fuel from its power plants, which are under strict International Atomic Energy Agency scrutiny, to make bombs in secret, the country’s overall nuclear capabilities are commonly believed to exceed considerably those of North Korea, which ignored American entreaties to test nuclear weapons twice, in 2006 and 2009 respectively. South Korea “is not a backyard motor repair shop in Mozambique that cannot produce a Beetle in spite of being given all the necessary drawings and instruction manuals by Volkswagen,” as the Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang wrote.

What it means is that South Korea does have the scientific and engineering capability to develop nuclear weapons, even though possession of the technology does not mean the country could move directly to arming itself. Talk of nuclear weapons may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole.

This isn’t to say that the public is fond of the thoroughly discredited joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula that was signed in January 1992 between Seoul and Pyongyang. North Korea has brazenly violated the pact and shows little sign of returning to it. But the general public know the government is not going to seek ways to develop a nuke program no matter who’s in power.

The joint declaration stipulates that the two Koreas “shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons,” but the North has made a mockery of it, developing nuclear weapons and reprocessing enriched uranium. The agreement was dead-on-arrival, with the North using it for no more than a photo session after signing the pact.

Thus it’s no exaggeration to say, as Leon V. Sigal put it, that “Almost everyone working on North Korea in Washington seems to have convinced one another that negotiating with the country is a waste of time.” Some key decision-makers under the government of President Lee Myung-bak who are involved in the time-consuming monitoring of North Korean nuclear policies agree although they are understandably extremely concerned about the feasibility of the North’s additional nuclear testing.

Siegfried Hecker, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University who first revealed the North’s clandestine enrichment operations in Yongbyon, alleged on Sept. 9 that the communist regime might seek to launch a third test to enable it to develop a small fissile warhead that could be carried by a missile. It is thus conceivable that the North’s appetite for a third test could lead the South to reconsider the ossified denuclearization policy, particularly if the US’s attention flags over the proliferation of nuclear weapons or fissile materials.

In short, while it is often said that Kim Jong-il would pay the price if he fires first, it is not clear, given the sea of problems in which the US finds itself currently enmired, how well America could work when and if the North mobilized its nuclear forces. If you’re a conservative proponent of nuclear weapons development, you’ll tend to oppose what’s called America’s nuclear umbrella, period. If you more or less accept the extended deterrence agenda made between Seoul and Washington, you’ll be open to the redeployment of tactical nukes to deter Pyongyang’s possible use of weapons of mass destruction.

According to recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents dated June 1978, ‘waning confidence in the United States, particularly if accompanied by a decline of US influence in Seoul, would strengthen the hands of those South Korean officials who want to pursue a nuclear weapons option.”

That was then.

Almost nobody believes that the 1992 pact is still alive or could be revived. Perhaps even George W. Bush, the former US president who nullified the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea because of the latter’s abrupt revelation of its uranium enrichment program, would agree that it’s time for Washington insiders to endorse the repeal.

South Koreans have strong concerns about the North’s nuclear program. Seoul obviously wants to resolve the nuclear troubles that have been poisoning the peace and stability of the entire peninsula. It is wrong to say that South Korea cannot develop a nuclear program. On the contrary, it is right to say that the South is not doing it in consideration of all the elements.

It is kind of an irony to see that North Korea was economically better than South Korea up to the early 1970s after the 1950-53 Korean War. Most nuclear energy statistics and data outside of a weaponization program show South Korea has performed considerably better than North Korea. Successive South Korean governments have made credible and successful achievements in the field of atomic energy, especially considering where the country started.

Despite the much-debated importance and urgent need for enhanced nuclear safety prompted by anti-nuclear activists in the wake of the Fukushima accident, South Korea currently operates 21 atomic power plants, having introduced its first plant in 1978. Five more under construction. President Lee is a cheerleader for nuclear power, with a solid belief that nuclear energy is a necessary alternative given South Korea’s lack of domestic energy resources,.

Lee sent a clear message at a high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security at the United Nations on September 22 when he said that the Fukushima accident should not be cause to renounce nuclear energy, even though nuclear energy, according to the president, is not the only option to solving future energy problems. His address has predictably galvanized many of the true believers on the right. They are seemingly relieved by the proliferation of nuclear power plants. Given his domestic outcomes so far, it is no wonder that an expansion of the use of nuclear energy is feted, as if it were in reality the Mother Teresa of alternative energy.

But the president’s remarks were enough to invoke some controversy over the life of a people whose destiny inevitably lies at the heart of the nuclear build-up. Some critics of the government claim that Lee, surrounded by a nuclear mafia, is on the wrong side of history in terms of global safety and security.

The debate focuses on how the nuclear plants should be safely operated, with the dominant view that they need to be rigorously monitored to abide by the international nuclear safety framework or norms such as the Convention on Nuclear Safety, while critics argue for cutting the number of the plants in operation and, from the long-term perspective, eliminating them completely. It would be unfortunate, given the strenuous effort to monitor the safety of the nuclear industry, if the government in Seoul were to listen too closely to the columnists and politicians who are calling for a new and dangerous dimension to be added to it through weaponization.

(Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. These comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Institute.)