South Koreans have almost unanimously shrugged off the threat of a holocaust they are sure is not about to happen in the confrontation between the United States and North Korea while rightists are using the crisis to demand that the South go nuclear-- matching the North’s nuclear weapons arsenal with as many or more.
Kim Jong-un is running a high-stakes bluff and is highly unlikely to risk a war that would destroy his country. South Korean rightists don’t seem to care whether the nukes are American or South Korean or both. They are calling for the US to return the warheads that were here until President George H W Bush ordered them out in 1991. The logic then was that the US and South Korea had to be able to say the South was nuclear-free before North and South Korea could sign a “joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Chung Woo-taik, a leader of the conservative Liberty Korea party, a formidable force that was the ruling party for nine years before the victory of the “progressive” Moon Jae-in in the snap presidential election in May, believes the time is ripe for “bringing back tactical nuclear weapons.” As long as North Korea has so blatantly ignored the denuclearization declaration, he says, he finds no reason for the South to stick to the deal.
That notion might have seemed fanciful up to the last US presidential election. US military commanders and diplomats alike were long accustomed to politely avoiding the subject whenever it was raised by Korean rightists, but the victory of Donald Trump last November sharply changed the odds.
Now Korean conservatives expect to find sympathetic voices among those surrounding Trump. They figure his own views on nuking up South Korea are unpredictable at worst, positive at best -- best, that is, in the eyes of rightists plotting their return to power.
President Moon has rejected the idea of bringing back American nukes even as he supports sanctions intended to pressure North Korea to freeze if not abandon its own nuclear program. His remarks on the 100th day of his presidency this week were mostly about maintaining a tough posture vis-a-vis North Korea but also going into negotiations, maybe sending a special envoy to Pyongyang to sound out the North on talks on multiple levels.
Moon Chung-in, a controversial senior administration adviser, has disparaged the US administration’s intra-organizational policy splits. US policy, said Moon, a longtime advocate of a peace treaty with North Korea and a critic of the US military in the South, has moved from “strategic patience” under President Barack Obama to “strategic confusion” under Trump.
Some members of President Moon Jae-in’s Minjoo or Democratic party have talked up South Korea building its own nuclear deterrent, but President Moon himself has shown no sign of craving a nuclear arsenal. The idea of having Americans nuclear warheads back in Korea seems totally out of the question considering the depth of leftist opposition to US troops implementing THAAD, the territorial high-altitude area defense, on a former golf course 200 miles south of Seoul. It's all Moon can do to defend the THAAD counter-missile battery while radicals refuse to accept surveys showing it would have virtually no negative environmental impact.
Moon, having brushed off questions about what he thinks of the Americans staging a renaissance in nuclear weaponry in South Korea, does not mention it while assuring Koreans, and Americans too, that South Korea would have to approve any military action against the North. Trump, he maintains, offered him that assurance in a phone conversation that was clearly intended to soften the impact of his threats to heap “fire and fury” on the North if Kim Jong-un ordered a missile to land anywhere near Guam, the U.S. island territory 2,000 south of Seoul from which U.S. B1 and B52 bombers make sorties over South Korea in response to North Korean missile tests.
The nuclear issue, though, is not confined to returning American weapons to South Korean soil. South Koreans also are calling for development of their own nukes, signaling the desire to build a nuclear industry every bit as big as that of the North. Again, Moon does not comment on that prospect in his public remarks, but privately he’s said to be not so much against it.
In fact, many South Koreans, liberal as well as conservative, say the South, if it is to aspire like North Korea to joining the global nuclear club, has to escape the chains of its agreement with the US not to go nuclear. How else, they ask, can South Korea claim to be really “independent” of the American bond if not as a nuclear weapons power?
Moon does not put the argument so bluntly. Rather, he speaks "with confidence that there will be no war on the Korean Peninsula ever again." On what does such confidence reside? His answer is simple: "The United States and President Donald Trump too have agreed to discuss any options it may take with South Korea regardless of what kind of options it takes."
There’s ambiguity in those seemingly firm words. Moon is not saying Trump will act only with South Korean approval. In a sense he’s trying to have it both ways. He’s all for the US-Republic of Korea alliance, and he’s proud to have South Korean troops playing war games with the Americans for the next two weeks.
At the same time, Moon is taking the lead in dealings with the North. He’s hoping to send a special envoy to Pyongyang to talk about a wide range of military and economic ties. Considering Moon’s got a 72 percent approval rating from his own people, the Americans have no choice but to follow his lead and pray, as Moon puts it, to stay out of war “at all costs.”
Donald Kirk (email@example.com) is a longtime correspondent in Korea and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.