South Korea’s direct and indirect nuclear ambitions seem to be put to rest for the time being. However, the situation in the region continues to deteriorate, and this suggests that the South Korean political class will continue to look for some way out of the current situation, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.
On October 18, 2022, US Ambassador to South Korea Philip Goldberg spoke at a forum organised by the Kwanhun Club, which brings together veterans of South Korean political journalism. The American ambassador’s speech has become, perhaps, one of the main events that are now being discussed by the South Korean media. The fact is that in his speech, Ambassador Goldberg made it clear that Washington has a negative attitude towards plans to return American tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula.
The most attention was paid to several phrases of the ambassador’s speech that, at first glance, had nothing to do with the question of the possible return of American nuclear weapons to the territory of the Korean Peninsula. Ambassador Goldberg denounced talk of the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, a possibility, as he said, Russian and North Korean leaders have been hinting at recently, and said that talk of tactical nuclear weapons is “irresponsible and dangerous.” The ambassador further stressed that discussions on topics related to tactical nuclear weapons lead to further global destabilisation.
So, from a formal point of view, Ambassador Goldberg spoke only about the nuclear weapons of Russia and North Korea, but, as evidenced by the reaction of the South Korean media, no one was misled. In Seoul, everyone understood well the hint contained in the speech of the American diplomat. By claiming that talk of tactical nuclear weapons is “irresponsible and dangerous,” he dashed the hopes of much of the South Korean political class that US tactical nuclear weapons would be re-deployed on the Korean Peninsula in the foreseeable future.
There has been a significant rise of concern in South Korea recently about the state of national security. The country’s right-wing conservatives, traditionally closely associated with the local security forces and, in addition, oriented towards the United States, are especially concerned about this situation, although this concern is partly shared by the opposition. One of the main reasons for concern has been the rapid development of the nuclear missile programme in North Korea. Pyongyang currently has delivery systems that allow it to strike the United States, while at the same time it is actively working to develop and deploy its own tactical nuclear weapons.
In practice, the emergence of North Korean tactical nuclear weapons, that is, real battlefield nuclear weapons, means that South Korea is losing the military advantage over the North that it has had for many decades. The South Korean army is technically superior to its potential adversary, but none of the precision weapons systems at the disposal of the South Korean military can offset the decisive advantage that a nuclear-armed North Korea would gain in the event of war.
In an attempt to get out of the crisis, the South Korean political class is primarily discussing two possible solutions. First, they are talking about the possibility of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons, and, second, about American tactical nuclear weapons, withdrawn in the early 1990s, returning to the Korean Peninsula.
The bulk of South Korean population has long believed that their country should become a nuclear power, but until recently, the political class has not even raised the question of Seoul creating its own nuclear weapons. For a long time, the elite believed that the price that would have to be paid for joining the nuclear club was unacceptably high. Everyone understands that in the event of an attempt to create its own nuclear weapons, South Korea would immediately face both international sanctions and harsh sanctions from China.
However, Ambassador Goldberg’s speech shows that such ideas do not meet understanding in the United States — and it is the United States that ultimately determines whether tactical nuclear weapons should be returned to the Korean Peninsula. After all, let’s not forget that the weapons in question are American ones.
It is curious that several other US representatives made similar statements to Goldberg’s at the same time; there is no doubt that in this case we are dealing with an organised diplomatic campaign. It is significant, however, that those involved, like Goldberg, did not make direct statements, but limited themselves to transparent hints.
In particular, during a regular press conference on October 18, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder answered a question about whether any US “strategic assets” are transferred to the Korean Peninsula. In this case, “strategic assets” mean particularly powerful weapons systems — for example, B-1B and B-2 heavy bombers, as well as tactical nuclear weapons. Ryder answered this question in the negative. He said that there is no need to increase the American military presence on the Korean Peninsula, since there are already 28,000 American troops there, which is “quite enough” to ensure the country’s security.
So, despite some pressure from Seoul, the United States decided not to increase its own military presence on the Korean Peninsula. Most likely, this is due to fears about the destabilisation that such an increase could provoke in the region. The appearance of American tactical nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula will hardly please China. While these weapons are formally deployed against North Korea, it is clear that amid the current US-China confrontation, they can be used against China as well.
However, the American leadership is likely to be worried in this case not only about stability in the region, even if the American administration really has neither the time nor the strength to be distracted by crises in East Asia.
Probably, the American leadership is also concerned about the prospects for the non-proliferation regime, which at present seems to be cracking under the blows of external circumstances. It is clear that the creation by South Korea of its own nuclear weapons would be a blow to the non-proliferation regime even if South Korea fulfils all the obligations assumed under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty: it will announce in advance its desire to withdraw from the Treaty and maintain the necessary pause.
In general, South Korea’s direct and indirect nuclear ambitions seem to be put to rest for the time being. However, the situation in the region continues to deteriorate, and this suggests that the South Korean political class will continue to look for some way out of the current situation.