Editor’s Note: Andrei Lankov is a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and director of Korea Risk Group. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
This remark, on the surface at least, reflects the current position of the Seoul government reasonably well.
Until a couple of months ago, no South Korean President would even bother to mention the idea of Seoul going nuclear – there was no need, such plans were clearly outside the realm of serious discussion.
But things have changed recently: Today, talks concerning the need for a South Korean nuclear program are fairly commonplace in Seoul.
What’s more, public opinion polls consistently indicate that a majority of the country’s population would actually support the idea of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons.
Secret nuclear program
In decades past, enthusiasm for nuclear weapons in South Korea extended to the highest levels of government.
In the 1970s, it was South Korea, not North Korea, which pursued a clandestine nuclear weapons development program. The program was able to become reasonably advanced, until the Americans discovered its existence and pushed Seoul into closing it down.
Since the late 1970s, the idea of going nuclear had remained something of a non-issue politically. However, things changed in July this year, when North Korea successfully tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting the US – presumably, with nuclear warheads.
Within a few years, North Korea will become the latest country capable of obliterating San Francisco or Chicago, if chooses to do so.
For many South Koreans this was a wake-up call.
For decades the universal assumption has been that the US would come to South Korea’s rescue if the country is attacked by the North – the events of 1950, and the arrival of US troops into the Korean war on the side of the South, confirmed that these expectations were not unfounded.
However, North Korea’s ICBMs might be a game changer.
Now, many South Koreans wonder if the US is still committed to protecting South Korea, not at the cost of tens of thousands of US soldiers being killed, but at the cost of millions of civilians dead.
South Korea now a target
The credibility of the US commitment is under doubt, and if the US can’t be relied on – so the logic goes – South Korea will need to look after itself.
President Moon, being a representative of the mainstream moderate Left, knows that his supporters do not like the idea of a domestic nuclear weapons program, but he must also contend with the fact that many politicians are now openly talking about the possibility.
Predictably, most of theses politicians are from right-leaning parties, who are currently in opposition.
There is no doubt that South Korea has enough money and technical expertise to go nuclear, but there is less certainty in its ability to overcome the types of political obstacles blocking that goal. South Korea is a democracy, much dependent of foreign trade – and this makes the nuclear option difficult to realize.
A domestic nuclear program would definitely make South Korea a target of international sanctions.
Of special significance is China, for whom a nuclear South Korea is a greater threat than a nuclear North Korea.
So, China is going to hit South Korea hard.
Given that China controls over a quarter of South Korea’s entire foreign trade, heavy Chinese sanctions, perhaps a complete boycott, are certain to provoke a grave economic crisis in South Korea.
Given the sensitivity of Korean voters to the country’s economic performance, such a turn of events would ensure that any government seriously attempting to go nuclear would be voted out of power at the next possible opportunity.
It does not help that most South Koreans do not take the North Korean threat too seriously.
While older generations would once probably be willing to make the necessary sacrifices (to protect their country from the North Korean threat), younger generations still see North Korea as little more than a bad joke, and their theoretical interest in the nuclear option is likely to evaporate once they encounter economic troubles.
So, one should expect a lot more talk about a nuclear Seoul, but this does not necessarily mean that South Korea will soon join the ranks of world’s nuclear powers, officially recognized or otherwise.
For outsiders this might be good news, but one wonders whether it is a good for Koreans.