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There Is No Case for South Korean Nuclear Weapons
The U.S. would also be a poor ally if it allowed one of its principal Asian allies to make a serious error like this.
Surprising no one, Max Boot gets another important foreign policy call wrong:
But if, in the future, South Korea does decide to go nuclear, it should not be a game changer for the United States. The United States has long tolerated nuclear weapons owned by friendly states such as France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan and India, while opposing their acquisition by rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea. Having South Korea join the nuclear club wouldn’t change that.
Ultimately, it should be South Korea’s call. We should refrain from applying heavy-handed pressure and respect whatever decision our democratic ally makes.
U.S. allies are sovereign and independent states, but that doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to accept or tolerate everything they choose to do. The U.S. would also be a poor ally if it allowed one of its principal Asian allies to make a serious error like this. South Korean nuclear weapons would not make South Korea more secure than it is for the reasons I laid out the other day, and it is very likely that South Korea would actually be worse off after acquiring them:
South Korean arsenal could end up causing South Korea a lot of economic pain and conjuring up new security threats for the dubious gains of further guarding against an attack that was already being deterred.
If the U.S. respects its ally, it has the obligation to tell the truth when it sees that ally making a profound mistake.
The U.S. has “tolerated” some nuclear weapons states outside the NPT only because it was in no position to discourage them from acquiring nuclear weapons when it mattered. Israel, India, and Pakistan weren’t and aren’t treaty allies of the United States, and the U.S. certainly didn’t approve of India and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons when it happened. A U.S. treaty ally flouting the nonproliferation regime with tacit American approval is very different from “tolerating” weapons development by states that never belonged to the NPT.
Van Jackson recently wrote about this issue at:
Basically, we’ve yet to see a reasonable strategic argument. Throwing around “deterrence” and “credibility” and US “abandonment”—it’s just words. They’re not being assembled into logics or causal wagers. As with AUKUS in Australia, the motivation for the policy is clear; the justification is missing. And that’s disturbing because we think nukes will make South Korea substantially less secure.
As far as I can tell, the “case” for South Korean nuclear weapons is that North Korea has them and therefore South Korea should, too. There isn’t really an argument for it at all. As Jackson says, there is no justification for it. It boils down to saying, “Well, if they want to do it, we shouldn’t get in their way.” This is how ostensibly “serious” foreign policy analysts are talking about the prospect of a tenth nuclear weapons state. It is fortunate that this sort of thinking didn’t prevail during the Cold War when there were quite a few “friendly” and non-aligned states toying with the idea of obtaining nuclear weapons. If this had been the attitude back then, we would have a lot more nuclear weapons states today than we have.
The nonproliferation regime is not as weak as some of its critics imagine, but one thing that would start to unravel it very quickly is if the U.S. just shrugged when one of its allies quit the NPT and built a bunch of nukes. Making arguments in advance that the U.S. shouldn’t try to pressure South Korea on this issue is bound to encourage hardliners in South Korea that acquiring nuclear weapons wouldn’t damage the relationship with Washington. It isn’t doing South Korea or the alliance any favors to create the false impression that acquiring nuclear wouldn’t have serious consequences for the relationship. There is no way that it wouldn’t drive a wedge between the two governments.
Perhaps the weirdest part of these articles and columns making the case for letting South Korea go nuclear is their easy acceptance of the idea that U.S. treaty commitments can’t really be counted on if there is serious risk to the United States. If these commitments mean anything, they have to mean that the U.S. is prepared to bear the full risks of fighting a war to defend its treaty allies. That is why it is important to make these commitments carefully and with a full understanding of the potential costs.
More nuclear weapons will make Northeast Asia less stable. Adding another nuclear weapons state to the mix would make every crisis in the future more dangerous. The U.S. has to remain firm in opposing a South Korean nuclear arsenal, and it needs to communicate clearly to South Korea that going that route would put the alliance in jeopardy.