The security situation in the Northeast Asia has emerged more complex and volatile now than ever before because of North Korea’s incessant pursuit of accumulating military muscle and nuclear weapons program. This has caused a sense of unease in its immediate neighborhood, South Korea. The latest in Pyongyang’s pursuit of military capability was the “successful” test-firing of a submarine-based ballistic missile, a technology that would offer the nuclear-armed state a survivable second-strike nuclear capability. As claimed by Pyongyang, this ‘world-level strategic weapon’, adds to its already existing huge military arsenal. North Korea is not bothered if its acts are violating UN resolutions that prohibit Pyongyang from conducting ballistic missile tests. “Development of a submarine-launched missile capability would take the North Korean nuclear threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula.”
Though South Korea is tied to a security alliance relationship with the US and is thus protected, there lurks a fear in some sections of the South Korean society that the US might not intervene to defend even if North Korea crosses the threshold and uses nuclear weapons because of larger strategic consequences for the region and the world. This has given rise to the idea of whether it is the appropriate time to revisit its nuclear options and acquire some to deter the North from possible adventurism. There are some influential law makers and hard-line columnists who have started articulating such a view and shaping public opinion towards acceptance to the idea of their country going nuclear even if that could mean abrogation of the security alliance with the US. Even in the US, there exists an opinion, howsoever small that may be, that the US should no longer be the world’s policeman and that its allies should look after their own security needs.
Adding to the debate of whether South Korea goes nuclear or not is the opinion of Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, who in a recent report said that external geopolitical and internal domestic political circumstances could lead to “trusted allies, such as South Korea or Japan” developing nuclear weapons to cope with a nuclear-armed North Korea. There exists a similar debate too in Japan despite extreme negative public sentiment on the nuclear issue. So, the question arises is, who makes the first move? If Japan decides to go nuclear first, South Korea shall not wait for long and vice versa. Can both resist temptations to revisit their nuclear options? This is a troubling question to which security analysts, including the present author, are seeking answer. With no definitive answer in the horizon, this remains at the moment a purely speculative academic exercise, which is why this analysis.
Nevertheless, what Ferguson says is worth analyzing. According to him, “if the United States were perceived to not be able to reliably and credibly counter the threats posed by China and North Korea, prudent military planners in Japan and South Korea would want to take steps to have their own nuclear capabilities”. He further adds: “Finally, if Japan crosses the threshold to nuclear weapon acquisition, South Korea would feel compelled to follow suit. South Korean leaders would then not want to be vulnerable to both nuclear-armed North Korea and Japan”. Ferguson claims that South Korea is capable of making 2,500 kilograms of “near-weapons-grade plutonium” annually from four pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) at its Wolsong power plant, North Gyeongsang Province. This would be enough to build 416 nuclear bombs every year. The scientist observed in the report, “once South Korea has at least a few bombs’ worth of plutonium and has confidence in its missile systems, it could go for a quick breakout that would most likely be used to signal North Korea, China, Japan and the United States”. The report argues that “one plausible purpose of this signaling of these initial ‘diplomatic’ bombs would be to prod Washington as well as Beijing to engage seriously on the denuclearization of North Korea.”
The report observes: “Hypothetically, if North Korea perfects its nuclear weaponry and becomes a clear threat to the South… and if the U.S. doesn’t provide a nuclear umbrella on the peninsula, Seoul would have no choice but to develop its own nuclear program.”
Ferguson argues that “South Korea could then leverage its base of a handful of nuclear bombs and implement its potential to make dozens of nuclear warheads annually from near-weapons-grade plutonium produced from its four PHWRs”. The scientist feels that “the initial steps could take place conceivably within a five-year period”. He further claims that the HANARO research reactor at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute in the central city of Daejeon could also be used to produce up to 11 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium annually if operated at full power. He, however, cautioned that his intention is not to argue for South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear bombs, adding that the best option for South Korea and Japan at the moment is for the US to continue to demonstrate its resolve to provide conventional and nuclear extended deterrence.
Such views are being articulated for some time both in Japan and South Korea. Coming now from a top US scientist as a sort of endorsement, the issue becomes more compelling for debate. Is Ferguson’s opinion a kind of cautionary warning on the establishments in Washington and Beijing that their failure to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program could compel Seoul and Tokyo to revisit their own nuclear options as threat perceptions intensify? Ferguson’s remarks at a closed-door meeting of nuclear experts in Washington D.C. on 27 April seems to be a discreet message to Washington and Beijing that North Korea’s nuclear issue ought to be handled more seriously and solution found at the earliest.
The significance of the argument in the report that Seoul can build dozens of nuclear bombs in a short time period because it is capable of making and transporting nuclear warheads and its nuclear reactors already have enough plutonium to make such weapons cannot be taken lightly as such claims came after South Korea and the US struck a deal over the revision of their 1974 nuclear cooperation agreement on April 22. The deal opens the door for Seoul to expand its commercial use of nuclear energy in accordance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation (of Nuclear Weapons) Treaty (NPT). In that case, Seoul may violate the NPT and consider joining the nuclear arms race if it determines that Pyongyang’s nuclear threat reaches a level which Washington and Beijing cannot control.
The report claims Japan’s possible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons may trigger Seoul to develop such weapons on its own. But the argument also can go the other way that Seoul’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons may precipitate a decision in Tokyo to acquire some of them on its own as well. It does not matter if spent fuel or enriched uranium is used to build nuclear bombs as long as their devastative potentials are in their possession. Seoul won the right to deal with spent nuclear fuel, secure a stable supply of nuclear fuel and promote the export of nuclear power plants in its agreement with the US on April 22.The two sides also agreed to lift the “gold standard” that legally binds US partners not to perform uranium enrichment and reprocessing.
The revised Seoul-Washington nuclear cooperation deal allows Seoul to secure long-term advance consent from Washington to conduct the early stages of “pyroprocessing.” Though the report also expressed concern that Seoul may exploit “pyroprocessing,” an experimental process for recycling spent fuel, to make nuclear weapons, Korean scholars rubbish to such possibility. According to a scholar at the Sejong Institute, “it is generally perceived that pyroprocessing has less chance of being converted into a program to produce nuclear weapons because it leaves separated plutonium mixed with other elements.” He further argues that “South Korea’s export-dependent economy will suffer heavily if the international community imposes economic sanctions as punitive measures for developing nuclear weapons.”
Other local experts also hold the view that a nuclear scenario for their country is highly unlikely, but could not be unthinkable if Seoul feels it has been pushed into a corner. The truism is that South Korea relies heavily on exports. Its economy has developed through trust with the international community and therefore it is highly unlikely that it will develop its own nuclear program without a clear justification for doing so. Seoul wants that the US and the international community to continue to put pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program and provide a nuclear shield. If Seoul is reassured of this guarantee, it would have no reason to develop its own nuclear weapons. Moreover, the government has not endorsed a pro-nuclear view and that is reassuring.