South Korea’s Nuclearization Prospects Are Burgeoning

1 year ago Alger Mag Editor 0


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has recently appointed South Korea as the chair of 2016 ministerial meeting on nuclear security in Vienna, Austria. South Korea, which has thus far coordinated numerous meaningful discussions on international nuclear policy, is now expected to expand its role as a more assertive actor in global nonproliferation initiatives. Despite such anticipations, however, South Korea is at the center of an uneasy nuclear dialogue among scholars and governmental officials. Political leaders and defense specialists who are witnessing increasing regional security tensions among East Asian states assert that South Korea’s likelihood of developing nuclear weapons is already high – and growing. We can no longer assume that South Korea will continue to rely on the United States’ nuclear deterrence.1

There have been few threats to the integrity of the South Korean regime in their commitment to international law. South Korea, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has been mostly accepting of its limited role in the international nuclear industry as a nuclear exporter2. Concerns were initially raised over South Korea’s recent development of a prototype pyroprocessing facility that is known to be capable of detaching mixed chemicals from other fissionable materials in spent nuclear fuel, giving researchers the potential to misuse the technology to extract plutonium. The issue was soon resolved with a newly revised treaty between the United States and South Korea in 2015 that limits South Korea’s right to exercise uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel without “advance consent” by the United States.

The real problem lies in the unstable political calculus of Northeast Asia that could lead South Korea to rupture aforementioned agreements. The tensions among Northeast Asian actors are at their peak since World War II: major territorial disputes including those over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, disagreement in the interpretation of Japan’s colonial history, plutonium production. Japan’s excess production of plutonium over the amount demanded is particularly perilous as it is likely to serve as a tipping point for South Korea. Although specialists argue that there is limited chance of Japan using stockpile excess plutonium to develop nuclear weapons, a plutonium buildup itself is sufficient to agitate its neighbors and instigate a prisoner’s dilemma, stimulating nuclear weapon development by South Korea out of fear. Although there are strong incentives for South Korea to follow the given guidelines of the NPT, increasing regional tensions can significantly undermine them.

Further exacerbating these concerns is the United States’ unclear and evasive rhetoric in addressing the South Korea-Japan disputes, diminishing the U.S.’s credibility among South Korean officials. South Korean experts, businessmen, and government leaders have recently expressed their open concerns toward a lack of good faith negotiations between South Korea and the United States. A South Korean official, Kim Won-Kyong, stated at the U.S.-South Korea Summit last October that “certain actions that the U.S. demand Japan may be difficult”3 for South Korea to similarly follow and accept. He brought up the example of the U.S.’s support for Japan’s recent decision to remilitarize, which prompted strong disapproval from the South Korean public and officials. Subsequently, Park Jin-Ho, a legislative aide in South Korea, added that South Korea as a middle power — a state with the willingness and capacity to employ proactive diplomacy with global vision — now seeks to ensure the capacity to say “no” to the United States when necessary.4 Although there are strong economic, political, and historical ties between the United States and South Korea conducive to nonproliferation initiatives, the fear of U.S. disengagement is adding damage to the long-lasted trust. The increasing conflicts concerning the South China Sea, Japan’s militarization and plutonium buildup, and diminishing trust between the U.S. and South Korea create an uncertain future for South Korea, as Cho Tae-yong, the Vice Foreign Minister of South Korea, described in his most recent interview.5 This lack of assurance combined with regional instability is likely to rupture already unstable domestic support for the nonproliferation treaty and stimulate South Korea to move for more drastic military action such as nuclearization.

Countries like Syria and Iran are similarly at risk of acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet unlike Iran and Syria, South Korea has the political stability to ensure judicious usage of a nuclear weapon, paired with increasing political support to counterbalance surrounding nuclear threats. While the nuclear cases of Iran and Syria have always been straightforwardly threatening to numerous nations, South Korea’s nuclearization could be conditionally justified and beneficial in light of regional volatility. A world with a networked structure requires proactive diplomacy and an increase in the role of middle powers to balance unequal power structures that can lead to conflicts. South Korea’s nuclearization is one of the most likely, and least-threatening, scenarios.

by William Lee

1  Ferguson, Charles. “How South Korea Could Acquire And Deploy Nuclear Weapons.” Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, May 5, 2015.


3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

Hong, Jaesung. Yonhap News. April 24, 2015. Accessed March 18, 2016.