With the South Korean election just weeks away, Pyongyangs’s recent provocations are making it clear that the new president will need to quickly develop a strategy to address the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear program.
The May 9 election will likely take place amid rapidly escalating tensions, as U.S. President Donald Trump exchanges inflammatory, bellicose comments with the regime of Kim Jong-un. In this environment, South Korea stands to embark on a sensitive recalibration of its policy toward North Korea.
While the Trump administration is in the process of finalizing its own North Korean policy review, South Korea must also make the North Korean nuclear threat a priority in its next administration. Alarming statements from some policymakers in Washington call for the reintroduction of nuclear weapons to South Korea, and this is one of many options the next administration could consider to deal with the North. But this option needs to be taken off the table for good.
It is provocative and unnecessary.
While farfetched, calls for arming South Korea with U.S. nuclear weapons are a concerning development. This plan was reportedly among the list of options presented to Trump by the National Security Council for dealing with North Korea. Given Trump’s previous cavalier statements on nuclear weapons and his April 6 declaration that “all options are on the table,” these calls should not be dismissed, however unlikely. The new South Korea president will need to respond decisively to oppose dangerous options, particularly the redeployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea.
At present, South Koreans are debating defense and security issues. This debate has figured prominently in the ongoing South Korea presidential elections. The two current frontrunners are Anh Cheol-soo of the left-center People’s Party, a dark horse whose popularity has dramatically increased in the past month, and Moon Jae-in of the liberal Minjoo Party, a leading contender from the start. An April 18 poll puts Moon’s support at 42 percent and Anh’s at 31.8 percent, though Anh had overtaken Moon not long before. With a viable conservative candidate out of the running, both Moon and Anh will likely reject the notion of deploying nuclear weapons. Anh Cheol-soo has reportedly said in the past that that “Possession of nuclear weapons could cause nuclear dominos in Northeast Asia and consequently opens up a path to nuclear armament by Japan and an armament race by China, and escalation of military tension in the Northeast Asia is inevitable.”
Among the presidential hopefuls, only Hong Jun-pyo of the center-right Liberty Korea Party—trailing third in the polls—has declared his support for the nuclear approach. Hong, a traditional strongman, has made disturbing comments to that effect, stating “I will promptly enter into negotiations with the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula...I will immediately initiate negotiations with the United States to redeploy nuclear weapons and provide shared control over the nuclear switch.”
The existence of such discussion is counterproductive to a peaceful resolution to the conflict and arming South Korea with nuclear weapons would carry serious destabilizing and counterproductive ramifications. According to retired Admiral James Stavridis, “I don't think that [deploying nuclear weapons] is a good idea. I think that it will only inflame the view from Pyongyang…I don't see any upside to it because the idea that we would use a nuclear weapon even against North Korea is highly unlikely.”
While the nuclear debate is counterproductive, it is not new and its underlying support should not be underestimated. Public support for a nuclear option is surprisingly high, consistently topping 50 percent approval, but has, however, fluctuated in recent years, falling from 64 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in 2016.
Following the North’s fourth nuclear test in early 2016, the debate was reignited in the South with calls by many politicians to deploy nuclear weapons and even to reconsider commencing its own domestic nuclear weapons program, a suggestion also floated by a March 2017 Heritage Foundation report. In 2016, representative Won Yoo-chul, the National Assembly floor leader from the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, called on South Koreans to “think about our own survival strategy and countermeasures that include peaceful nuclear and missile programs for the sake of self-defense.”
Irrespective of who is elected, the new South Korean president should look for opportunities to engage with the United States and China to jointly deescalate the situation, enforce sanctions on the North, and look for an opening for dialogue—a policy proposed by both frontrunners.
Redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea should be taken off the table. The United States and South Korea have numerous other, more sustainable, solutions to addressing North Korea. However, due to the power vacuum left by the impeachment of President Park, the window for South Korea to take an active role in the conflict may be closing rapidly.