The United States and South Korea have always kept great economic and political relationships. In 2016, trade total between the two countries neared $145 billion and South Korea ranked as the seventh largest importer of U.S. goods (USTR, “Korea”). Whether due to ideological or purely strategic reasons, or both, South Korea has always been a friend of the United States.
With the current North Korean crisis, as history may come to remember it, South Korea’s presence to the United States is as critical as ever. Within weeks, North Korea’s nuclear missile range has increased up to 3,700 km, far enough to hit Guam (JTBC, “North Korean missile range reaches 3,700km… possibilities of Guam attack drills,” 09.15.2017). North Korea has also developed a hydrogen bomb with destructive power greater than that of two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined (CNN, “North Korea says it can make new bomb in volume,” 09.03.2017).
Donald Trump reacted to North Korea’s missile tests by saying that the United States will respond with “fire and fury” to further North Korean threats (Guardian, “Trump threatens North Korea with ‘fire and fury’ — video,” 08.08.2017). President Moon Jaein of South Korea remarked that dialogue with North Korea is “impossible” and that sanctions will pressure North Korea into seeking dialogue (JTBC, “President Moon: ‘conversation impossible in this situation… North Korea can be made unrecoverable,’” 09.15.2017).
But let’s face it: these responses are not threatening to North Korea; they won’t change North Korean opinion regarding the development of its nuclear weapons. At the moment, there seems to be nothing that the U.S. could do to influence North Korean behavior.
A seemingly effective approach would be to economically pressure North Korea. However, North Korea’s near-exclusive economic relationship with China means that the U.S. has to go through a powerful yet reluctant country. North Korea is a crucial buffer for China against U.S. troops in South Korea (CFR, “The China-North Korea Relationship,” 07.05.2017).
Russia would not help either. Putin opposed the idea of an oil embargo on North Korea, stating that there is a lack of “political and diplomatic tools” (New York Times, “Putin Rejects cutting Off Oil to North Korea,” 09.06.2017). Without Chinese or Russian support to implement diplomatic measures, the United States must turn to South Korea. North Korea has no soft power; nuclear weapons are its sole threat, which can be nullified by South Korean nuclearization.
Of course, South Korean nuclearization is controversial and risky, and there are indeed blatant negatives to it. Looking from a strictly South Korean economic point of view, nuclearization wouldn’t make sense as it would require significant government funding and discourage investment into South Korean markets (Huffington Post Korea, “Explaining why it’s ridiculous to voice for South Korean nuclearization,” 02.15.2016). From the international perspective, further nuclearization of East Asia would mean greater likelihood of another global war.
Unsurprisingly, no political leader seems to support the idea of South Korean nuclearization. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis opposed establishment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea (Huffington Post Korea, “Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense, opposes re-establishment of tactical nuclear weapon in the Korean peninsula,” 09.15.2017). Even President Moon has opposed nuclearization (Huffington Post Korea, “Everything that President Moon revealed in an interview with CNN,” 09.14.2017).
But South Korea’s nuclear weapon would be different from that of North Korea. South Korea is not a threat to the U.S. nor to the world (Monthly Chosun, “What would happen if South Korea nuclearizes?” April.2013); its nuclear weapon would be a direct deterrent against North Korea, acting as a much more powerful tool than the empty political statements that have had little success in preventing North Korea’s missile tests.
Yes, South Korean nuclearization would benefit the United States. It would mean less burden for U.S. troops in South Korea. (NK News, “Reason why South Korea should nuclearize,” 10.25.2016). In addition, nuclearization makes South Korea the first and foremost threat to North Korea, reducing the need for North Korea to delegate excessive funds into developing long-distance missiles aimed at the United States (NK News, “Reason why South Korea should nuclearize,” 10.25.2016).
Although South Korea is a part of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which prevents member nations from developing nuclear weapons, Article 10 of the treaty states that member nations may drop out of the treaty under emergency circumstances in which national security is threatened (JTBC, “Is South Korean ‘nuclearization’ really possible?” 02.15.2016).
It’s hard to see how South Korea’s national security is not under threat; North Korea, if they decide so, can destroy Seoul without much resistance, which would do nothing to help U.S. efforts against North Korea either. Hence, South Korean nuclearization not only meets legal legitimacy, but also makes tactical sense. The United States allowed India to nuclearize in a collective effort to counter China, so why can’t the same apply to the current situation, which is arguably more urgent? (JTBC, “Is South Korean ‘nuclearization’ really possible?” 02.15.2016)
Another opposing view would say that South Korean nuclearization would lead to further nuclearization in Asia, starting with Japan. This is unlikely, because the Japanese public, having been victims of atomic bombs, is generally opposed to the development of nuclear weapons (Al Jazeera, “A nuclear arms race in East Asia?” 06.03.2016).
As a South Korean citizen, I support nuclearization primarily because it brings heightened security to South Korea. Yet, as I have been arguing throughout this article, nuclearization is beneficial not only for South Korea, but also for the United States, and perhaps for the entire world. South Korean nuclearization would contribute to, rather than disrupt, the balance of power in East Asia. It would be a logical exception to global peacekeeping norms, given South Korea’s proximity to North Korea and the current crisis—one that could very much replicate World War I if North Korea is left alone.