Threats From North Korea

Faced with constant threats from North Korea and simmering tensions with China, the South Korean public has put an increasing amount of pressure on its government to acquire domestically developed nuclear weapons.  A 2022 poll has indicated that “more than 70 percent of the population[1]” of South Korea desires to add nuclear weapons on their soil for the first time since the 1991 withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from the southern part of the peninsula.  While this may apparently alleviate security concerns for South Korea, the regional implications may have adverse consequences.  South Korea should not acquire nuclear weapons because they are not needed to defeat North Korea, and the proliferation of these unconventional weapons will increase tensions with China.

America’s nuclear umbrella is vast and proven and extends to its allies like South Korea.  Stealth aircraft, nearly undetectable submarines, and long-range land-based missiles can strike North Korea with nuclear warheads at any time, without any warning, and on short notice.  Nuclear weapons give any nation that possesses them immense prestige and firepower on the world stage.  However, nuclear weapons will not be needed in war with North Korea.  The massively superior combination of South Korean and American military forces will defeat North Korea in conventional combat, even if North Korea uses nuclear weapons.

American Nuclear Might is Available

If nuclear weapons are needed to be used against North Korea, an American nuclear-capable submarine can be positioned close to the peninsula, providing the same capabilities as land-based nuclear weapons located in South Korea.  Any war with North Korea will see America and South Korea likely driving deep into North Korean territory and replacing the Kim regime with a more friendly government based on capitalism and democracy to avoid refighting the same war in the future.  This regime change will be a lot easier and more effective if radiation is not lingering over the Korean peninsula from a nuclear detonation.

Any strategic arms change in Asia should warrant a look at the Chinese reaction.  China has made great efforts to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, including a massive expansion of its nuclear forces, with reason to believe that its nuclear stockpiles will rival America’s and Russia’s within ten years.  If South Korea arms itself with nuclear weapons, this may trigger a dangerous increase in tensions as China seeks to deter Taiwan from pursuing a similar policy.  China may also view South Korea’s nuclearization as a threat, allocating even more nuclear warheads to deal with this emerging scenario, thus increasing the overall number.

Chinese economic pushback can be severe and crippling, as it is South Korea’s largest trading partner[2].  While many South Koreans desire the increased security that only nuclear weapons can provide, they may not be willing at the cost of much higher goods and a stagnating economy.  China regularly uses economic coercion as a foreign policy tool, imposing tariffs and barriers on nations like the Philippines, which fall afoul of Beijing.  China’s economic influence is vast, and a peninsular nation like South Korea has limited options for cheap goods and services.

Ongoing Hostilities

The South Korean military has been at odds with its northern neighbor for decades.  Despite hostile threats and minor military skirmishes, neither side desires large-scale warfare.  It would simply be too costly for either side to reunify the peninsula under their forms of ideology.  South Korea and its US ally have successfully deterred North Korea without South Korean nuclear weapons for decades and will likely continue to do so into the future.  Any goal of defeating North Korea in combat will involve regime change, and this will be a lot easier if North Korea has not been struck with nuclear weapons, making large swaths of the peninsula radioactive.  South Koreans, despite a mandatory period of military service and constant threats of war, enjoy a very high standard of living due to an expanding economy and expansive trade network.  They will not want to sacrifice this way of life by escalating tensions with China, its main trading partner.  The proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery platforms is not needed to alleviate South Korean security concerns, and any changes to this military posture are not needed to win a war against North Korea and will have rippling adverse economic effects across the region.