Over at The Diplomat, Richard Weitz looks at US worries about the Korean nuclear program… the South Korean nuclear program. Here’s a taste:
Although few South Koreans currently harbour nuclear weapons ambitions—thanks in part to the enduring US military presence in Asia as well as the emergence of a democratic government and a vigorously free South Korean press that would make pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme difficult—these benign conditions could change during the next two decades when the new reactors and reprocessing technologies would become available.
More immediately though, South Korea’s use of reprocessing and enrichment would make it harder to deny North Korea the right to engage in comparable activities. In their 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, both Korean governments forswore uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. Although Pyongyang went on to violate this non-proliferation commitment (and many others besides), the United States and South Korea still aim to use the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms to roll back the North’s nuclear programmes and restore the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear-weapons-free status.
You all know my position on the matter — nuclear proliferation in and of itself doesn’t scare me. I’ve never lost a night of sleep worrying about the British, French or Israeli nuclear arsenals. It proliferation to countries I don’t like that worries me, and they’ll develop nukes regardless of whether South Korea gets the bomb or not. Wietz rightly points out, “Of all the regions in the world, Asia is a particular proliferation concern since China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United States all have major nuclear weapons programmes, while Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea already have the industrial capacity and scientific-technical expertise to launch such programmes.” OK, but I look at that, and I see three countries I wish didn’t have nukes (China, Pakistan and North Korea… and you can throw Russia in there) but do and three prosperous democracies to which the US must now extend nuclear defense guarantees. I’m not sure what we get out of that, other than maybe the privilege of having to decide one day whether to nuke China to defend Taiwan.
On a related note, South Korea recently developed a cruise missile with a range of 1,500 km, putting North Korean nuclear and military sites in range. Wonderful, says the Marmot, but I won’t be impressed until the 300km range limit on South Korean ballistic missiles, imposed by bilateral agreement with the United States, is lifted.