The Drivers and Implications of South Korea’s Nuclear Armament Discourse
On March 30, 2023, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) held a briefing on the external and internal drivers for South Korea’s recent nuclear discourse and implications for U.S.-ROK alliance. The nuclear armament discourse in South Korea began during the Cold War and was driven by fears of U.S. abandonment. The nuclear armament discourse has evolved significantly in recent years and has several complex drivers. Analysts widely acknowledge the deteriorating security environment and view questions about the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent today, as well as U.S. long-term reliability, as factors driving this discourse. Some posit the explanatory importance of domestic politics and nationalist impulses, which include deeply embedded desires for autonomy and agency in national defense and foreign policy. While analysts may disagree on the main drivers of the discourse, they agree that the implications of this discourse are quite profound. These include the future of global nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT); the US-ROK civil nuclear energy agreement (1-2-3 agreement); alliance capabilities and consultative mechanisms needed to deter North Korea and reassure South Korea; and the future and nature of the US-ROK alliance.
NBR’s experts provided concrete policy recommendations for Congress to strengthen the bilateral alliance and non-proliferation leadership amid growing nuclear threats from North Korea. Mr. Choi outlined South Korea’s perspective on the deteriorating regional security environment, confidence in U.S. security commitments, and limits of South Korea’s non-nuclear strategic deterrence strategy vis-à-vis North Korea. Mr. Fitzpatrick discussed the consequences of South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons, including the political and economic costs of breaking the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), undermining the U.S.-ROK security alliance, as well as serious backlash from North Korea, China and Japan. The conversation explored how the United States might be able to take steps to strengthen extended deterrence without undermining the NPT.
Seukhoon Paul Choi, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, RAND Corporation
Mark Fitzpatrick, Associate Fellow for Strategy, Technology and Arms Control, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Josh Nezam, Director of Congressional Affairs, The National Bureau of Asian Research