Ahead of his inauguration as South Korea’s president on Tuesday, Yoon Suk-yeol vowed he would “significantly strengthen” his country’s defenses against North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear forces.
The conservative president-elect’s campaign pledge highlighted the escalating debate in South Korea over whether to push for a return of US nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula – and even whether Seoul should seek to develop its own deterrent nuclear.
Pyongyang has carried out a series of ballistic missile tests since September and the United States has warned that North Korea could carry out its first nuclear test since 2017 this month. South Korean officials have also been spooked by Russia’s use of nuclear threats to deter Western intervention in Ukraine.
“The big thing that’s changed is what Russia did in Ukraine,” said Karl Friedhoff, Korea expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“The Korean security establishment never really took seriously the possibility of North Korean nuclear coercion, but seeing how Russia was able to threaten potential nuclear use early in the war opened the eyes of people,” Friedhoff said.
South Korea’s strategy for using its conventional military to deter Pyongyang relies on capabilities it calls the “Three Ks”. These are preemptive missile strikes, dubbed “Kill Chain”, to eliminate launch sites if a nuclear attack is deemed imminent, with “Korea Air and Missile Defense” to destroy incoming projectiles and “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation to hit back at Pyongyang.
Under incumbent President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has invested heavily in fighter jets, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and military spy satellites. South Korea is also developing its own missile defense system modeled on Israel’s Iron Dome.
But analysts said South Korea’s ability to rely on its conventional military superiority to deter attacks was eroding, increasing its dependence on the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States, the ally security closest to Seoul.
“North Korea’s development of solid-fuel missiles that can be fired at any time undermines the kill chain, its maneuverable missiles challenge South Korea’s missile defenses, while the threat of possible early use of the nuclear threat poses a threat to the whole package,” said S Paul Choi, founder of Seoul-based political risk advisory group StratWays.
“Korean security officials have long been uneasy about this, but the problem is becoming more acute, causing more and more people to question our reliance on the extensive deterrence of the America,” Choi said.
The United States withdrew all of its nuclear warheads from South Korea in 1991, but Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general and former commander of South Korean special forces, said US tactical nuclear weapons should be deployed in the peninsula in response to the threat posed. by those of North Korea.
At a military parade last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signaled his willingness to engage in nuclear coercion to defend his country’s “core interests”, saying his nuclear arsenal had a “mission secondary” which went beyond the prevention of war.
Chun said tactical nuclear forces should be stationed in South Korea that could “respond in 1-3 minutes, not 45 minutes or a few hours.”
“Only when both sides put themselves in such a dangerous situation will they think about getting rid of these weapons,” he said. “That’s the logic of the Cold War, but that’s where we are now. The North Koreans just don’t take us seriously.
Jeongmin Kim, a senior analyst with Seoul-based news service Korea Pro, said many members of the new Yoon administration shared Chun’s desire to see US nuclear weapons deployed on South Korean territory.
“Korean conservatives have signaled not only that they want more nuclear assets made available to defend the Korean Peninsula, but they want greater assurances about how the United States might respond in the event of a emergency,” Kim said. “They want to have more of a say, and they want to have a better understanding of American thinking about nuclear use.”
She added that Yoon would be more willing to project force than his progressive predecessor, whose hopes of securing his political legacy as a peacemaker have been dashed by North Korean intransigence.
“The difference between the two administrations will be a matter of tone rather than actual military readiness,” Kim said. “While Moon Jae-in used to prioritize dialogue and managing tensions, Yoon will prioritize signaling to South Korean citizens that their deterrence is effective.”
Some analysts have warned that a more confrontational line could be counterproductive.
“Doubling of deterrence, economic isolation and the threat of military force will only deepen instability on the peninsula at a time when North Korea is ramping up tension,” said Jessica Lee, a member of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington.
Recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggested maintaining public support in South Korea for the country to acquire its own nuclear weapons, with 71% of those polled in favour.
Christopher Green, senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, said that just as North Korea began developing nuclear weapons in the late 1970s in response to perceived military vulnerability, South Korea could come to the conclusion that it needed its own nuclear forces.
“The United States has tremendous leverage to limit South Korean ambitions in this regard,” Green said. “Washington could theoretically acquiesce if it viewed North Korea as otherwise invincible, but I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.”
But Chun said Seoul should not assume it can rely on external guarantees from the distant United States indefinitely.
“Either the extended US nuclear deterrent is formidable and credible, or South Korea acquires its own nuclear weapons,” Chun said. “I have never doubted an American soldier. But I would be foolish to put my nation’s security in the hands of an American politician.