Korea reflects on nuclear
taboos By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - Suddenly, the notion of South
Korea going nuclear has re-entered mainstream
In the early 1970s
late president Park Chung-hee dreamed of South
Korea joining the global nuclear club. The United
States frustrated that idea, however, by getting
South Korea to go along with a nuclear cooperation
agreement that banned reprocessing spent fuel
As a signatory of the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), South Korea has
not exactly been plotting ways to develop their
own nuclear warheads. They do, after all, have the
American "nuclear umbrella", and then there's the
under which the North and South did agree on
totally denuclearizing the Koran Peninsula.
Like the genie in a bottle, however, the
nuclear dream is recurring while conservative
South Koreans, convinced North Korea will never
give up its nukes, say they have to have them too.
You don't hear South Korea's conservative
president, Le Myung-bak, talking about it, but
conservatives are staging conferences and talking
out in the National Assembly, while voices in the
South Korean media are picking up on the idea.
They began talking more loudly, with more
confidence than ever, after a White House
official, almost inadvertently, certainly in an
unguarded moment, got himself quoted by JoongAng
Ilbo, a leading newspaper here, as saying, in
effect, sure, if South Korea wanted some tactical
nukes, the White House would be glad to help.
All South Korea had to do was ask, said
Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arm
control and weapons of mass destruction, caught by
a JoongAng Ilbo reporter during a seminar at the
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts
University, and the answer was sure to be "yes".
The venue for his remark was embarrassing
since the dean of Fletcher is Stephen Bosworth,
who moonlights as US special envoy for North Korea
policy. Bosworth around the same time was in
Washington talking about the possibility of
extending aid for North Korea's starving people if
only the North would show signs of living up to
previous deals for giving up its nukes.
Samore's remarks touched off such a storm
here, and inspired such denials and explanations
and circumlocutions from US and South Korean
officialdom, that it's a safe bet he's going to be
very careful before saying any such thing again.
He's not, however, saying he was misquoted or
talking off the record or misunderstood.
Basically, the word is, "Samore, say no more,"
while diplomats and spokespeople do the talking.
Samore could not have picked a better - or
maybe worse - time to talk. By complete
coincidence, apparently, one of the US State
Department's more clever negotiators was right
here in Seoul - not to negotiate a deal for
deploying tactical nukes but to begin to come to
terms with South Korea on renewing the nuclear
cooperation agreement when it expires three year
For Robert Einhorn, whose title is
"special adviser for non-proliferation and arms
control", the need to disavow Samore's comment was
a distraction that he had no problem shaking off
by telling reporters the US had "no plan to deploy
US tactical or other nuclear weapons in South
Korea". South Korea, he said, doesn't "need them".
Einhorn is having a more difficult time
talking South Korean negotiators out of a plan for
pyroprocessing, seen as "a long-term solution" for
recycling spent fuel rods without producing
weapons-grade plutonium. Pyroprocessing, say the
South Koreans, cannot compare with normal
reprocessing, is economic, has the requisite
safeguard ability - though takes another 10 or 20
years before it's ready for commercial use.
South Korean is having trouble, however,
convincing everyone that pyroprocessing is not a
step on the way to reprocessing fuel rods for
warheads. At the Korea Atomic Energy Research
Institute, physicists were discovered to have
enriched tiny amounts of uranium in 2000 without
even notifying their own government. The
International Atomic Energy Agency in 2004 scolded
South Korea for not reporting the experiments but
concluded they had stopped. The South Korean
argument becomes less convincing considering how
strongly some conservatives are demanding South
Korea become a nuclear-weapons power.
"It's absurd that South Korea and the
United States should bind themselves to the
principle of denuclearization," said the
English-language Korea Herald, "while the North
has conducted nuclear test twice and threatens the
South with nuclear holocaust on almost a daily
The paper came out with a neat way
to circumvent the letter of the NPT. US President
Barack Obama would not find deployment of US nukes
in South Korea to be "contradictory to his global
non-proliferation commitment", the paper
rationalized, "as redeployed tactical weapons
would be withdrawn upon the settlement of
reference was to negotiations on any level, in
North-South dialogue or in six-nation talks
chaired by China with participation by all the
other major powers engaged in the perpetual tug of
war for the Korean Peninsula, the US, Russia and
Japan as well as the two Koreas. One can only
imagine the ruckus that a redeployment of US nukes
- withdrawn well before the signing of the 1991
denuclearization agreement - would raise at the
Among the pro-nuke
advocates is Chung Mong-joon, one of South Korea's
richest billionaires thanks to the inheritance
from his father, Hyundai empire founder Chung
Ju-yung, of a controlling stake in Hyundai Heavy
Industries, the world's biggest manufacturer of
Chung, a member of the
National Assembly from the ruling Grand National
Party, doubts if the mere existence of a nuclear
umbrella would "make the North give up its nuclear
weapons". Therefore, he reasoned, "We must
consider redeployment of tactical nuclear
Such remarks fuel the ongoing
debate over whether South Korea should have its
own nuclear stockpile. "Voices for nuclear weapons
in South Korea are getting louder and louder,"
said Yoo Se-hee, chairman of the Network for North
Korean Democracy and Human Rights. "The US and
China haven't been able to solve this problem."
Yoo said, however, that "it's rather
premature to accept that argument" - that South
Korea should have its own nuclear weapons. Rather,
he said, "the US and China should press further
for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons"
lest "the nuclear arguments of South Korea will
get a bigger voice".
"Many people say we
must have nuclear weapons," said Choi Young-jae,
policy commissioner of the National Unification
Advisory Council, another non-governmental
organization, "but I think that issue is not so
Japan and Taiwan might also become
nuclear-weapon powers, Choi observed, while many
countries, including strong ally America would
strongly object. At the same time, he said, it
would likely provoke unrest by South Korean
liberals and leftists, already deeply critical of
the country's conservative government.
chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, Sohn
Hak-hyu, hinted at that possibility, warning it
was "inappropriate for the government and ruling
party to create a crisis on the Korean Peninsula
by talking about the return of US tactical nuclear
weapons at this sensitive time".
appears to agree for now, stressing in one speech
"the need to realize reunification".
the same day, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin urged
a variation of the theme, shoot first and ask
questions later. Small unit commanders, he said,
should tell their troops to return fire when
necessary without asking permission from higher
headquarters. Presumably he wasn't talking about
opening fire with a tactical nuke.