Stephen Gowans at The Centre for Research on Globalization recently asked the question ‘Does North Korea Need Nuclear Weapons?’ Seoul, Washington and most of the world are of course too concerned with geo-security implications of the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions to indulge in such ideological debates, but Gowans argues passionately that North Korea is theoretically in the right. I can’t say I agree with his rather hopeful conclusion that nukes in the North will bring ‘political utility’ and ‘reduce the likelihood of war’, but if some are willing to argue that North Korea does need nuclear weaponry then are some of the calls for equality in Seoul so ridiculous?

A girl looks at a display on assessment about impact of supposed nuclear attack on Seoul at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Pic: AP.

A poll by the Asan Institute in Seoul has shown that 66% of the South Korean public would now favour developing their own nuclear arsenal. This has followed weeks of increasing political debate on the issue.

“As a sovereign nation under nuclear threat from its main enemy, I think (nuclear armament) is most certainly justified.”

“The nuclear deterrence can be the only answer. We have to have nuclear capability.”

“Considering how North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons has become an established fact, and Japan’s position is to adopt defence capabilities equal in force, we are the only ones whose hands are empty under the nuclear shadow of North Korea, placed in a desperate situation where all we can do is use our (voices) to seek (international) cooperation and response.”

All quotes are from Korean Parliamentarians, and mostly high-ranking Saenuri ones. They are still in the minority but they are a vocal one.

The reaction to Seoul’s call to arms has been predictably met with derision, calls for calm, and by some with patronizing mockery. Articles range from ‘South Korea Does Not Need Nuclear Weapons’, ‘Gary Saymore says South Korea doesn’t need nuclear weapons’, and ‘Nukes for South Korea not the answer.’ The response was instantaneous and the message unambiguous; Bad Idea!

But Does South Korea have a case?

This article discusses the issue from purely a pragmatic stance. The response ‘all global nuclear proliferation should be opposed’ is an answer to a different discussion. This is not how the issue is currently being broached in Seoul, and not how I intend to look at it here. The question is rather for what geo-political or strategic reasons should South Korea arm?

Their primary concern is ‘will the US respond?’

This question relates not just to a nuclear attack, but across the board. How willing would a war-weary, budget-strained America be to throw everything they have into a fight thousands of miles away from home? With increasingly expensive and unpopular wars in the Middle East, the US (or at least its public) is clearly not relishing the global policeman role. Coupled with its long history of isolationism, Seoul’s worries can be understood. The US has been making a show recently of just how committed it is to the alliance. B-52’s and now nuclear armed submarines have been moved to the ROK in effort to dampen any South Korean militaristic demands, but Seoul still has concerns about how America would react if push came to shove.

The US has made some large and sweeping promises to South Korea this week about its role in any future conflict, but using nuclear missiles is the biggest step of all. Would a nation (the US or any nation) use a nuke in what is essentially a third party conflict? Aside from the numbers of troops based there, the US has no real geo-strategically imperative concerns in South Korea. Although it would obviously be dismayed to see a communist Korea, this is not the days of the Cold War, and the Domino effect is no longer relevant. It is a regional conflict first and foremost. In the mould of the United States and the Soviet Union, India and Pakistan, and possibly soon Israel and Iran, there is a natural predilection for nuclear balancing. This is the nature of M.A.D. The US is not assured destruction in this scenario.

South Korea does perhaps then have legitimate concerns that the US would never follow through, but some will say that’s not the point of a nuclear umbrella – the nuclear umbrella is instead a show of force and capability, but not intent. However, ‘will America follow through’ may well be the question Pyongyang is asking.

North Korea has shown time and again that it will provoke and act against South Korea up to the very edge of what would provoke a response. If it feels this limit does not include a US nuclear strike then that will change what Pyongyang thinks it can get away with.

And what of China, whose growing power cannot be removed from the equation? Will a rising China ever push US power out of the region? It seems unlikely but the US will likely find its actions more and more limited by Beijing. Whether Beijing will continue to stand by North Korea is a different question, but Seoul can be excused for worrying that it may make the US unwilling to act at risk of antagonising China, and China unwilling to fully denounce its long-time ally. Suddenly being the only non-nuclear state between America, China, and North Korea, presents a much scarier future.

And then there is the line of thought that it would ‘raise tensions.’ How much more can tensions really be raised in one of the tensest military stand-offs since the Cold War? The North already threatens to use every means at its disposal to deal with its Southern neighbours. It seems most of the talk of raising tensions refers to a possible nuclear scramble that would encompass Taiwan, Japan, and others in the region. Seoul may feel its own security needs are coming second to those of their neighbours and the region.