Tactical Nukes for South Korea?

Tactical nuclear weapons, thought to be a long-dead issue in South Korea, are newly re-emerging as frustration grows over the North's recalcitrance over its nuclear program.

Recently Gary S. Samore, the Obama administrations top adviser on nuclear proliferation, hinted in an interview with the Seoul-based JoongAng Ilbo newspaper that Washington might favor a request to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons if Seoul were to ask.

The White House officially denied any ownership of the statement later, saying there is a considerable presence of nuclear weapons nearby in US Navy submarines and weapons deployed at other overseas bases that make tactical nukes unnecessary. Still, it remains unclear whether Samore's remarks were his personal opinion or a trial balloon.

Conservative pundits, including a few lawmakers of the ruling Grand National Party as well as a one-time presidential candidate and one of the country's leading journalists, have seized upon Samore's remarks as staunch advocates.

The thinking is that tactical nuclear weapons, which can be used strategically on the battlefield, can present a counterweight to the North's never-ending nuclear blackmail at least in the eyes of the hawks. Some on the right believe South Korea has gone astray by abandoning its nuclear weapons.

They want to a return to the thinking of the late President Park Chung-hee (or at least the Park of their imagination) who did not hide his lifelong ambition to develop indigenous nuclear weapons. The general-turned-president reportedly confided in one of his press secretaries that "we can complete development of a nuclear bomb by the first half of 1981." However, Park was assassinated by then Korean Central Intelligence Agency director Kim Jae-kyu in 1979.

Tactical nuclear weapons in the hands of US troops stationed in the south were withdrawn in 1991. Since that time, the subject of nuclear weapons has been strictly considered taboo as a topic for public discussion.

In any case, the advancement of the idea of nuclear weapons now seems hard to ignore. It is not because people don't believe that the redeployment of nuclear weapons is smart strategy but rather because they believe that the western powers currently do not have enough leverage to counter the north's nuclear threats.

The advocates, however, are not considering whether the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is beneficial in terms of South Korea's national interest. That said, negotiating with the North, a de facto nuclear state, without any kind of parity is like chasing a thief without a pistol.

In reality, South Korea is clearly prohibited from possessing nuclear weapons in accordance with the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula ratified between South and North Korea in 1992. For almost 20 years, US administrations have continued to refer to the declaration, even when North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006 and in 2009, respectively. Indeed the joint statement has in effect become a Magna Carta although it puts only South Korea under the moral yoke of denuclearization. Requests by the South for tactical nuclear weapons have been routinely denied by Washington, DC on the basis of the declaration.

These statements probably were not the smartest thing for policy-makers in Washington to agree to, since any idea that the North has faithfully abided by the landmark statement with regard to the denuclearization of the peninsula is demonstrably nonsense. Nonetheless, American negotiators appear to share the nonproliferation instinct. They have repeatedly emphasized the importance of observing the obsolete statement in the face of the North's routine, continuing violations. As a result, South Koreans have been entirely vulnerable to an asymmetry of nuclear power. It's a kind of nightmare.

So the hawks argue that South Korea needs some counterweight to the North's nuclear power, touching upon the sensitive question of whether the presence of nuclear weapons in South Korea has any place in government policy. While showing their displeasure with the US, the frustrated conservatives obviously have a conspicuous enthusiasm for nuclear weapons program, to the point of obsession in it. They can always hope.

That's a widespread conservative belief. Fortunately, despite the increasingly sharp calls for nuclear armament among dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, the South Korean government has not sought to distance itself from the US. The Lee Myung-bak government still seems to think Washington acts like someone it wants covering its back in a knife fight.

There is also the question of China, which rather noisily cleared its throat almost immediately after Samore's statement was published in the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo. Given China's close proximity to the peninsula, that brings the question of economic harm into the picture at a time when the world is still recovering from the 2007-2009 credit crisis.

By reconfirming the validity of the 1992 statement, Seoul's low-profile approach has thus been wise and useful in terms of the institutional logic and trend of global nonproliferation.

The reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons can by no means be a right answer, unless almost everyone on the street agrees to return to the 1950s and 1960s, a time when South Korea's living standards looked very much like the North Korea of today. South Korea has enjoyed a considerable taste of the affluence that flows from capitalism. No South Korean political leader would seek to develop nukes in a foolhardy manner. The possession of nuclear weapons would be twin brother to poverty.

From this rational viewpoint, it's safe to assume that no one wants South Korea to win a nuclear weapons competition with the North. Above all, it's politically impossible. Despite their necessity, nuclear rearmament is clearly something the majority of South Koreans want nothing to do with. While campaigning for a nuclear-armed South Korea can be the business of a very few people, there is little doubt that the rest of them want to maintain a sound and robust economic system.

The strength of South Korea, which created the so-called miracle on the Han River, is its ability to adapt to changing times. Extremely keen to remain wedded to the global phenomenon of nuclear nonproliferation, South Korea will likely travel a higher road toward a peacefully unified country without nuclear weapons, rather than choosing to face the nightmare like the hopeless regime in Pyongyang. A technologically advanced nation with an annual gross domestic product of US$446 billion could afford to build advanced nuclear energy facilities. But nuclear weapons are a delusion and they should stay that way.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.