Tokio It was a clear message to North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong Un: According to President Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea could deploy tactical nuclear weapons should the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program become more realistic.
The conflict on the divided Korean peninsula had become significantly more explosive in the past year. North Korea launched nuclear-capable missiles at an increased rate while US and South Korean forces resumed full-scale joint military exercises.
Yoon’s testimony heightens concerns about a nuclear domino effect in a region already aggravated by growing tensions between China and the United States.
Should South Korea actually become a nuclear power, it was feared that Japan would inevitably follow.
For East Asia, that would be a threatening scenario: China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and Japan would be suspicious of each other, all of them would be able to attack the opponent with nuclear warheads in the event of a conflict.
At the moment the situation is different. South Korea is under the nuclear umbrella of the US ally. If necessary, the country will be defended with the “full range of our military capabilities,” according to Washington. In view of North Korea’s massive armament, however, the question arises in Seoul as to how this pact can be strengthened. The term “nuclear participation” is used more frequently, a strategy that applies to non-nuclear NATO partners like Germany. The allies of the USA are directly involved in the nuclear target planning, and US nuclear weapons can also be installed in the participating countries.
But although the South Korean government would like to have more say, Yoon remains skeptical. Instead, the President prefers to talk about joint planning and exercises for nuclear warfare. However, South Korean security expert Kim Duyeon from the Center for New American Security points out that even such a step would go too far for the United States.
North Korea is apparently expanding its arsenal at a rapid pace
The scientist therefore recently suggested so-called table-top exercises. According to the US definition, these are “informal, discussion-based meetings in which a team discusses their roles and responses during an emergency”. The South Koreans could already learn a lot from this about the thinking and actions of the US planners, according to Kim.
This idea is now actually being implemented. A corresponding project should start in February, says South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong Doo. The politician knows that time is of the essence. And Washington is also working flat out to increase the threat potential against North Korea. According to experts, Kim Jong Un now has missiles that can also hit the United States.
The US disarmament expert Joseph Cirincione described the missile program in an interview with the Handelsblatt as “world class”. And Kim is apparently continuing to expand his arsenal at a rapid pace. The Korea Institute for Defense estimated that his country already has 80 to 90 nuclear warheads. By 2030, the experts expect 166 pieces, with which a large-scale nuclear inferno could be caused.
With this destructive potential, the South Koreans and Japanese are wondering how comprehensive their protection really is. Many doubt the protecting power’s readiness to defend itself, because the United States itself could become the target of Kim’s attacks in the event of a nuclear escalation.
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Japan is also witnessing debate over nuclear weapons
Former Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has now called for the nuclear shield to be tested regularly in order to be able to assess whether it is still working at all. In addition, Japan must hold intensive talks with the USA. Which weapons are used in an emergency? That is the central question that the two powers must clarify.
In fact, Japan is also experiencing a debate about nuclear armament. Unlike in South Korea, however, this is conducted more cautiously. This is mainly due to historical experience. In 1945, Japan was the only country in the world to be hit twice by American atomic bombs. The devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still a national trauma today, and skepticism about nuclear weapons is particularly great.
There are fewer fears of contact in the neighboring country. South Korea first considered developing nuclear weapons under President Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in 1979. It was in response to US President Richard Nixon’s plan to withdraw US forces from South Korea.
Washington was unenthusiastic about the prospect of another nuclear power – and exerted massive pressure on Seoul to abandon its ambitions. Only with the start of the North Korean nuclear program in the mid-1990s did the desire to counter the threat with an equivalent nuclear deterrent grow again.
>> Also read: North Korea is arming itself: How dangerous is the nuclear program really?
South Korea: Majority of society supports own nuclear program
By raising hopes for nuclear armament, the unpopular President Yoon can distinguish himself as a hardliner among the electorate and collect important sympathy points. According to an opinion poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 56 percent of respondents support the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons, and 71 percent even support their own nuclear program.
However, Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warns Koreans against giving in to this impulse. “The costs of South Korea’s entry into nuclear armament far outweigh the often assumed benefits,” he wrote in a column for South Korean daily Joong Ang last week. With its own nuclear program, there was a risk of serious anger with the USA, and China would even react with severe economic penalties.
“The better choice is to continue to rely on US enhanced deterrence,” he said. However, this must be strengthened. Ultimately, he has in mind what President Yoon is also demanding for the use of nuclear weapons: “South Korea must be given a greater say in planning and implementation.”
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