Will North Korea Ever Develop into a Nuclear Power?

4534534544The 2016 Inter-Korean crisis sent ripples throughout the entire region. It also promoted a new wave of discussions of whether South Korea should be armed with nuclear weapons. This theme is not new; just recall some of Chon Mon Zhong’s statements. But this time the national conservatives just cannot seem to ever stop the debate.

The Chosun Ilbo featured an article on this subject. It says there that South Korea should finally terminate the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and begin negotiations with the US to obtain the right to extract enriched uranium. The article notes that South Korea should proceed with caution to not aggravate relations with the US. But it is hard to remain sober when the six-way negotiations just fizzled out, and the US, as well as the People’s Republic of China, blame each other for the failure instead of putting a joint squeeze on North Korea.

The floor leader of the parliamentary faction of the ruling Saenuri Party Won Yoo-chul delivered a speech at the National Assembly in the same spirit: “We cannot borrow an umbrella from the neighbour each time it rains. We need a raincoat we could wear ourselves.” Won called the principle of denuclearization “meaningless” referring to the fourth nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang. He also pinpointed that unceasing provocations on the part of Pyongyang have altered the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and Seoul must take adequate measures to get it under control.

Cheong Seong-chang, Head of the National Reunification Strategy Department of the King Sejong Institute, also believes that at this point South Korea should create a nuclear defence program and put it into action.

Statements of this nature are based on the public opinion. KBS World Radio reported the results of a poll, where 50 percent of respondents believe that South Korea should have its own nuclear weapons.

Several important notes should be made in this context. First, in case a relevant political decision is generated, it will be much easier for South Korea to produce an atomic bomb as compared to its Northern neighbour. Experts estimate that considering South Korean technological capabilities and absence of sanctions it would take South Korea a year and a half or two years at the most to build a complete A-bomb (not just an explosive device North Korea possesses). Cheong Seong-chang thinks that “if President takes a respective decision, South Korea will be able to produce a nuclear weapon within 18 months. South Korea does not have problems with the means of delivery that the North is experiencing. It possesses “superior nuclear technologies” allowing it to produce superb nuclear weapon that will not need testing, so the international community will not have to impose sanctions against Seoul for testing nuclear weapons.”

For some reason nobody mentions that South Korea already has a robust defence program. It ranked seventh on the World Military Strength list compiled by the Global Firepower website. The US leads the list. Russia is second, followed by China, India, Great Britain and France.

Secondly, even if we disregard the fact that the first nuclear weapon on the Peninsula was US made, the first attempt to create a nuclear weapon (and not peaceful atom) was undertaken by Seoul and not Pyongyang (and in a similar situation). In the late 1970s, the South caught up with the North in terms of economic development, but could not boast military primacy yet. Policy adopted by the US President Nixon and his followers compelled Park Chung-hee to think of the development of its own nuclear defence program. This decision was also instigated by the regime’s fear of an American-Chinese backstage deal intended to be implemented at the expense of South Korea. Since economically and politically South Korea depended on the US to a greater degree than the North on the USSR, these attempts were swiftly rounded up. According to one of the versions, there is evidence that the US was involved in the assassination of Park Chung-hee because he would press on with his idea. This version is too conspiratorial, but it reflects the spirit of those times.

Thirdly, at the beginning of the 21st century, South Korean scientists were caught performing rather “peculiar” experiments. If some other country had been busted staging them, it could have made a good candidate for sanctions since the “experiments” resembled a disguised research in the prohibited field. For example, they conducted uranium enrichment and recovery of plutonium from uranium — two alternative ways for the creation of a nuclear charge. Having tested them, South Korea demonstrated that it is scientifically and technologically advanced enough to create an A-bomb and that the only thing keeping it from materializing its plans was the political ban. South Koreans admitted their wrongdoing and tried to excuse themselves by describing their tests as pursuit to quench their “scientific curiosity.” They also claimed that they never thought of developing an actual nuclear weapon. Of course their story was deemed as credible.

As for the official position of Park Geun-hye’s government, it embraces the concept of denuclearization. Southerners bring up the issue of an A-bomb exclusively amidst a polemical heat. But lately they’ve been more eager to talk about it. It also remains a mystery what would have happened if Park Geun-hye had been succeeded by a representative of a more radical conservative force employing the “Northern threat” rhetoric and not by someone moderate as Ms. Park used to be at the beginning of her career. Then talks might end, and actions could begin.

There is also one more aspect that is important. South Korean rightists keep their mind open about possible acquisition of North Korea. If that happens, not only will Southerners enjoy a gain in manpower and natural resources, but get hold of the nuclear weapon.

Certainly, the discussion concerning prospective changes to the South Korean regional security program is beyond the topic of the article. However, it is worth mentioning that event if the old problems are resolved, new, more complex ones, might arise. First, Japan, Vietnam and Taiwan might develop their nuclear programs quickly (challenging the non-proliferation regime). Secondly, South Korea, going through a multitude of internal problems, might adopt a blatant, aggressive nationalistic ideology. And it would be much harder to control it (to compare to the alleged North Korean threats) given South Korean economic self-sufficiency.

The US does not seem to be too thrilled with such prospects and continues demonstrating its willingness to extend its “nuclear umbrella” to South Korea. A representative of the South Korean Ministry of National Defence, covering the results of the US and South Korean joint nuclear deterrence drill conducted in the Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California on February 24-27 made a statement confirming this offer. In the course of the drill, South Korean military personnel were observing a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile Minuteman III intended to deliver a pre-emptive strike on North Korean facilities.

We will be closely watching the development of this trend, which can be as crippling for the stability of the region, as the recent North Korean actions.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Centre for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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