In 2021, North Korea boasted that its “ultramodern” tactical nuclear weapons were ready for deployment. At the time, the intensifying US-China strategic competition under the “America First” campaign was fueling China’s nuclear ambitions. Moreover, the US commitment toward protecting its security allies, particularly on providing extended deterrence, waned as former President Donald Trump offered to allow allies to acquire their own nuclear arsenal to reduce “costs.” As a result, public opinion indicated the need to take nuclear matters into South Korea’s own hands, either by persuading the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons on Korean soil or develop capabilities of its own. In all, conservatives became more realistic, and progressive elites more skeptical about US security commitments.
The security environment surrounding the Korean peninsula in January 2023 is even more dire. In 2022, North Korea returned to testing a record number of ballistic missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile, and has even rehearsed a nuclear attack against the South. The provocations have not only increased in frequency but also in the variety of methods, which makes interception more difficult.
If North Korea conducts its seventh nuclear test, it may choose to mount tactical nuclear warheads on shorter-range missiles that threaten South Korea and other US allies in the region. As if to validate these concerns, North Korea welcomed 2023 by firing four short-range missiles that could “attack any part of South Korea mounted with tactical nuclear weapons.” Moreover, Kim Jong Un recently called for an “exponential increase” in its nuclear weapons arsenal at the Workers’ Party’s policy meeting, indicating that strengthening its nuclear weapons program is a major goal of 2023.
North Korea’s nuclear prowess is growing against Russia’s war in Ukraine, ushering in what Richard Haass has called the “dangerous decade.” World order is now a combination of the traditional geopolitical order and the globalization order, making it more vulnerable to spoiler attempts. As long as strategic cooperation between China and Russia prevails, North Korea is set to take advantage of the rift between US-led democratic and non-democratic leagues to enhance its bargaining position and increase the stakes. It may well have learned from Ukraine that keeping its nuclear weapons is worth it.
Last September, Kim Jung Un formally ruled out the possibility of denuclearization talks. Of course, it did not help that the Biden administration’s inward focus on winning the midterm elections and outward focus on winning the strategic competition against China while keeping Russia at bay kept North Korea low among its priorities.
As North Korea is bent on heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula and beyond, the ROK and the United States must continue to make substantive progress in strengthening extended deterrence and alliance credibility.
Public opinion polls in 2022 showed steady or growing support for some form of South Korea’s nuclear armament. Korean and American academics and policymakers have begun to actively exchange views on allowing US allies, such as South Korea, to develop their own nuclear weapons. These efforts were buttressed by US expert recommendations “to accept that North Korea has nuclear weapons” and that “some form of arms-control proposal” is the only realistic option to limit North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile systems. Others went further to argue that “direct South Korean/Japanese deterrence is an increasingly better option” and that the United States should let the nuclear debate take its own course in East Asia. However, public opinion polls remain sensitive to how the question and tradeoffs of going nuclear are portrayed in the surveys. Meanwhile, academic research provides evidence that leaders should not fear strong public pressure to use nuclear weapons in an escalating crisis during which North Korea attacks a US ally.
What is reassuring is that these discussions are taking place against the backdrop of a strengthened ROK-US alliance and joint decision-making to make extended deterrence more credible. In addition, the 54th Security Consultative Meeting Joint Communique specified that the United States will utilize “the full range of its defense capabilities,” including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities and advanced non-nuclear capabilities.
The United States also promised to increase the frequency and scale of strategic asset deployments to the Korean peninsula. The allies plan to conduct joint military exercises that include scenarios in which North Korea uses its nuclear weapons. In addition, South Korea and the United States will enhance consultation processes, including the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, and make progress in joint nuclear planning to deter and respond to North Korea’s threats. Such necessary developments were prescribed as early as February 2021.
NAVIGATING ITS COMPLEX SECURITY ENVIRONMENT
On his campaign trail, President Yoon Suk-yeol, who came into power in May 2022, emphasized the need for a bold national strategy to navigate the complex security environment. Developing nuclear weapons was not part of the agenda. Instead, he was determined to broaden South Korea’s diplomatic bandwidth to harness the region as a whole to secure its national interest rather than focus solely on engagement with North Korea.
With aspirations to become a pivotal global state, the Yoon administration published South Korea’s first-ever Indo-Pacific Strategy document, the “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region,” in December 2022. This strategic drive promises to contribute to peace and stability in the region. However, the most significant constraint South Korea needs to overcome, which differentiates its strategy from that of other like-minded nations, is that North Korea remains the primary existential threat.
As North Korea is bent on heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula and beyond, the ROK and the United States must continue to make substantive progress in strengthening extended deterrence and alliance credibility. Much collaborative research must be done in theory development and extracting empirical implications for policymakers.
Bo Ram Kwon is an Associate Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA).