South Korea’s Nuclear Options

In response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test, a debate has reemerged in South Korea about whether the country should deploy nuclear weapons of its own. Last week, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn declared that the government maintained its official position that South Korea would not possess or develop nuclear weapons. This is not the first time this debate has bubbled up to the surface. In November 2010, when it was revealed that North Korea had built an advanced plant for the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU, which can be used to construct a nuclear weapon), the South Korean defense minister raised the possibility of reintroducing US tactical nuclear weapons.

Some background: South Korea has a sophisticated infrastructure for the production of nuclear energy and cooperates closely with the United States on the development of its nuclear industry. South Korea did pursue a nuclear weapon of its own during the 1970s, but it abandoned the program under pressure from the United States and signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1975 as a state not permitted to develop nuclear weapons. The United States stationed tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea during the Cold War, but these weapons were withdrawn in 1991, when North and South Korea signed a declaration calling for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. You can learn more about the history of South Korea’s nuclear programs from the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

South Korea continues to enjoy a military alliance with the United States that lends it protection under the “nuclear umbrella.” That is, the United States would respond to any nuclear attack on South Korea (presumably, one launched by North Korea) by launching a nuclear strike against the attacker. By this logic of “extended deterrence,” South Korea enjoys the protection of the American nuclear arsenal without having to acquire weapons of its own.

It will be interesting to see whether confidence in the nuclear umbrella begins to erode if and when North Korea develops a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States. Currently, they do not possess such a missile, and the succession of failed tests suggests that they are still a long way from such a capability. If, however, North Korea were in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, then South Korea may start to wonder about the United States’ nuclear guarantee. As long as North Korea cannot hit back after a retaliatory strike by the United States (in response to the North’s nuclear attack on the South), then the United States does not have to fear for its own safety when it launches the retaliatory nuclear strike against North Korea. If, however, North Korea might be capable of launching a nuclear weapon after the United States’ retaliatory strike, then the calculation becomes quite different. South Korea may find itself wondering whether the United States would be willing to sacrifice Los Angeles to respond to an attack on Seoul. In other words, South Korea (and others) may find itself questioning the credibility of the United States’ nuclear deterrent and may start to wonder if it really does need nuclear weapons of its own.

Questions exactly like these arose among the United States’ western European allies during the Cold War, when the United States was similarly pledging to retaliate against a Soviet attack on western Europe (either conventional or nuclear, depending on the time period) with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In fact, doubts about the credibility of the American deterrent helped spur France to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. Hopefully we are still a long way from the day when South Korea will find it necessary to act on similar doubts.


North Korea’s Latest Provocation

North Korea claimed on January 6 that it had conducted an underground test of a hydrogen bomb. If this claim is true, it would mean that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has advanced beyond the production of the more basic atomic weapons it has tested in the past. At this point, scientists are still collecting data to try to determine what actually happened. Most seem to dispute the claim that North Korea successfully tested a true hydrogen bomb, although they may have succeeded in testing a “boosted” atomic weapon, which is far less advanced and far less destructive than an H-bomb. Experts currently estimate North Korea’s test had a yield of roughly 6 kilotons; a Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb in 1961 produced a blast of 50,000 kilotons. (A yield of 1 kiloton is equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 tons of TNT. “Real” hydrogen bombs produce a staggeringly large explosion.) The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining the basic science behind the different types of weapons here.

Interestingly, North Korea also released footage last week claiming to show the recent successful launch of an SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missile. Experts now claim that the video has been doctored with images from 2014, and that the heavy manipulation of the footage was an attempt to obscure the fact that the test seems to have been a failure.

These tests coincided with the January 8 birthday of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. It is not unusual for North Korea to launch provocative military displays around key calendar dates or for its leader to use such displays to try to shore up his own power. What is somewhat unusual about this latest provocation is the fact that China has joined the international community in condemning the nuclear test. China has also indicated that it would support punitive action by the UN Security Council—presumably, additional sanctions. China has been reluctant to break ties with North Korea in the past and tends not to be thrilled about Security Council sanctions in general, so this may be a significant development in the international campaign to contain the North Korean regime.

I am always struck by the extent to which news coverage and commentary on North Korea refers to the country and its leader as delusional, insane, or irrational. We have a history in the United States of labeling certain leaders of other countries as crazy and treating them as such—Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein are two obvious examples. This has the unfortunate consequence of leading us to believe that such leaders do not respond to international pressure (convenient if you are trying to drum up support for a regime-change campaign), and to both over- and underestimate their competence. That is, we view such leaders as both possessed of the ability to wreak unparalleled destruction in the international community and incapable of responding to the basic strategic realities of international politics.

Since 2001, the United States has invaded or overthrown the regimes of several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—none of which possessed nuclear weapons. It has, however, refrained from invading North Korea, which has both one of the worst human rights records of any state on earth (far worse than that of Libya, which everyone was so eager to liberate in 2011), and (as of 2006, i.e., after the U.S. invasion of Iraq), a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I certainly don’t think North Korea views it as one, either.  We may have a hard time viewing Kim’s behavior as “rational” in terms that fit with our own worldview, but it is a dangerous oversimplification to view him as a deranged clown and doing so can distort our long-term strategy for managing North Korea.