Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest: South Korea – New Government, Old Nuclear Debates

Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest: South Korea – New Government, Old Nuclear Debates

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once declared that “All politics is local.” While he may not have been thinking of nuclear weapons at the time he coined the phrase, debates over nuclear issues take on local characteristics within Asia.

The Rising Power Initiative’s “Nuclear Debates in Asia” project examines how several countries in Asia grapple with these topics at the domestic political and societal level. Positions on nuclear energy, national security, and nuclear nonproliferation are often linked as a wide range of viewpoints compete for prominence.

In this Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest, there is a prime example of this debate in South Korea and its newly sworn in government led by President Park Geun-hye. In her inaugural address on Monday, President Park proclaimed that “North Korea’s recent nuclear test is a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people.” She had campaigned on a pledge to ease tensions with Pyongyang and encouraged the hermit kingdom to denuclearize the peninsula if it wished to escape “self-imposed isolation.”

Despite North Korea’s recent provocations, the Park Administration remains interested in denuclearization talks and continuing Seoul’s status as a non-nuclear weapon state. A few days before this ceremony, however, one of South Korea’s largest newspapers – The Korea JoongAng Daily – reported that members of President Park’s own party suggested the need for an indigenous nuclear weapons capability to counter threats from its northern neighbor. Representative Shim Jae-cheol of the Saenuri Party argued last week that the “only way to defend our survival would be to maintain a balance of terror that confronts nuclear with nuclear.” In June 2012, former party chairman and presidential candidate Chung Mong-joon called for a “comprehensive re-examination of our security policy” that should empower Seoul with “the capability to possess” a nuclear arsenal.

These issues were prominently on display in the days leading up to South Korea’s presidential election with the December 2012 multi-stage Unha-3 rocket test, which many analysts claimed was really a long-range ballistic missile experiment. As RPI author Scott Snyder wrote last year, “South Korea has faced a long tradition of North Korean provocative actions designed to influence South Korean election outcomes.”

Chart showing US tactical nuclear weapon in South Korea

Chart showing US tactical nuclear weapon deployments in South Korea (Credit: Hans M. Kristensen,

The United States used to field several hundred tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, but those were removed in the early 1990s. During the recent presidential campaign, however, Chung Mong-joon advocated a return of these weapons to his country. The topic was briefly discussed early last year in the U.S. Congress when the House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the FY13 national defense authorization bill that “encourages further steps, including such steps to deploy additional conventional forces of the United States and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region.”

The Obama and Park governments officially remain opposed to this move:

  • “It is not a matter to be reviewed,” said Chun Young-woo, South Korean presidential secretary for security and foreign affairs
  • “Our policy remains in support of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula,” said Robert Jensen, deputy spokesman for the National Security Staff. “Tactical nuclear weapons are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea and we have no plan or intention to return them.”

For many observers, the domestic debate over South Korea’s future status as a non-nuclear weapon state is closely intertwined with its interest in revising a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. South Korean negotiators would like to secure new rights to enrichment and reprocessing of U.S.-origin material not granted in the expiring agreement, which sets rules for the export of U.S. nuclear technology and material. Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes that South Korea:

…has stated its desire to acquire enrichment to support its ambitious plans to export additional nuclear power plants around the world. And South Korean scientists seek to develop a reprocessing technology (called pyroprocessing) to support an advanced research program in fast reactors that would require recycled fuel.

Since these dual-use technologies can manufacture fuel for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, some critics have argued a revised nuclear cooperation agreement with enrichment and reprocessing rights could offer Seoul the latent atomic weapons capability advocated by Chung Mong-joon. At a minimum, critics contend that this new arrangement would set a poor precedent for future nuclear energy trade and the nonproliferation regime.

As the Park Administration moves into the Blue House and settles on its nuclear energy and security policies, these debates are likely to continue. Be sure to follow the Rising Power Initiative’s “Nuclear Debates in Asia” project and the RPI blog as events develop for more news and analysis.