Dr. Seong-Chang Cheong: The Case for South Korean Nuclearization, Part Ⅱ -- A Four-Stage Plan
North Korean nuclear threat management measures through South Korean indigenous nuclearization
Introduction by Mitch Blatt: Dr. Seong-Chang Cheong, the Director of Department of Reunification Strategy Studies at the Sejong Institute, has been a Lecturer at Seoul National University, a Policy Advisor for the Ministry of Unification, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Office of National Security, and a Guest Commentator for the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). He is an advocate for South Korea’s indigenous development of a nuclear weapons program. He argues that the ROK’s nuclearization would enhance Korean national defense and take pressure off the United States and could compel North Korea to the negotiating table. He has provided me a paper he wrote on the issue in December 2022. I will be publishing the paper this week in three parts. In Part I, Cheong explained the background of the debates. Now, in Part II, Cheong lays out a five-stage plan for South Korea achieving indigenous nuclearization and using it to push for arms reduction and a peace deal with North Korea.
Text by Seong-Chang Cheong
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Ⅳ. North Korean nuclear threat management measures through South Korean indigenous nuclearization
There have been arguments that South Korea should be armed with its own nuclear weapons to effectively respond to North Korea’s nuclear threat. The momentum for such a proposal picked up in 2022, as many experts and politicians have expressed sympathy with my argument that Seoul should go beyond the completion of the nuclearization by setting a realistic goal to achieve “quasi-denuclearization” by reducing Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal to less than 10 through nuclear arms reduction negotiations. If we propose the “complete denuclearization” of North Korea from the beginning, North Korea will refuse to even come to the negotiating table. However, the possibility of negotiating with Pyongyang would be even greater if we acknowledge the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons—only the minimum amount deemed necessary for the regime’s survival—and provide tangible compensation corresponding to its phased dismantlement of the rest of the nuclear weapons.
Of course, it is uncertain whether Pyongyang will accept this new approach, but, unlike his father Kim Jung-il who neglected the people’s lives while only emphasizing the loyalty of the military for the regime’s survival, Kim Jong Un appears to attach great importance to the improvement of his people’s livelihood. It is thus expected that he will show interest in such proposal of the gradual and phased reduction of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and corresponding sanctions relief in parallel like discussed during the U.S.-DPRK negotiations in 2018.
Should Seoul and Washington set Pyongyang’s “complete denuclearization” as a long-term goal to be realized in the next stage after the “quasi-denuclearization,” South Korea and the U.S. will be able to show much more flexibility than now in negotiations with North Korea. Furthermore, if the inter-Korean nuclear balance is maintained between the “quasi-denuclearization” and “complete denuclearization” phases, the South Korean people will be completely free from the fear of North Korean nuclear weapons, and the North will not be able to threaten the U.S. with its nuclear arsenal.
The measures for South Korea’s indigenous nuclearization and nuclear arms reduction negotiations with North Korea that I propose are divided into four stages: 1.) Making a link between North Korea's seventh nuclear test and South Korea's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); 2.) South Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and exerting pressure on North Korea to return to denuclearization talks; 3.) Convincing the U.S. and proceeding to South Korea’s nuclearization with the former’s tacit agreement; 4.) Achieving quasi-denuclearization through inter-Korean nuclear arms reduction agreement and restoring inter-Korean and the U.S.-DPRK bilateral relations.
◯ Stage 1: Making a link between North Korea's seventh nuclear test and South Korea's withdrawal from the NPT
Some Korean experts argue that South Korea will face severe international sanctions in case of its withdrawal from the NPT. However, this is clearly not the case. Paragraph 1 of Article X of the NPT stipulates, “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other parties to the Treaty and to the UNSC three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”
This means that North Korea’s seventh nuclear test will justify South Korea’s notice of withdrawal from the Treaty. When the withdrawal comes into effect after the three-month period, the ROK can decide whether to go nuclear depending on the results of discussions with the U.S. In addition, Seoul’s withdrawal from the NPT does not automatically lead to its nuclear weapons development but is just a step toward the nuclearization. Therefore, the ROK’s withdrawal from the NPT cannot serve as a basis for international sanctions because that also runs counter to the spirit of the NPT’s Paragraph 1 of the Article X.
Hence, Seoul needs to declare that it will withdraw from the NPT for the nation’s survival and security in case of Pyongyang’s seventh nuclear test. Since the ROK possesses more than 4,000 nuclear bombs’ worth of fissile material, the DPRK will become nervous if the ROK withdraws from the NPT. This will in turn make Pyongyang hesitate to conduct the seventh nuclear test. It will also encourage Beijing to put pressure on Pyongyang to prevent its seventh nuclear test, out of concern for a possible nuclear domino effect that Seoul’s nuclearization may trigger in Tokyo and Taipei. Consequently, signifying that the Seoul is open to nuclearization through the withdrawal from the NPT will increase its foreign negotiating power.
◯ Stage 2: South Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and exerting pressure on North Korea to return to denuclearization talks
If North Korea conducts its seventh nuclear test despite South Korea’s warning, the South should announce immediately its withdrawal from the NPT. At the same time, it is desirable to declare that “South Korea cannot help but nuclearize itself unless the North return to the denuclearization talks with South Korea, the U.S., and China within a six-month period.”
If Seoul shows such determination, Pyongyang will have to consider returning to the negotiating table in order to prevent Seoul’s nuclearization. Beijing will also wield strong influence over Pyongyang to return to the denuclearization negotiations to prevent the worst-case scenario in which Seoul’s nuclearization leads to that of Tokyo and Taipei. The ROK can propose a format of four-party talks (two Koreas, the U.S., and China) instead of three-party talks (two Koreas and the U.S.) to offer justification and incentives for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to persuade North Korea more aggressively into returning to the table of negotiations. If a continuous and phased reduction in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities is achieved thanks to the denuclearization negotiations, South Korea will not have to proceed to the implementation stage of its nuclearization.
◯ Stage 3: Convincing the US and proceeding to South Korea’s nuclearization with the former’s tacit agreement
If Pyongyang does not return to the table of negotiations within a six-month period, even after Seoul’s declaration of its withdrawal from the NPT, the latter is recommended to proceed to its nuclearization through close cooperation with and under the tacit agreement of the U.S. Concerning the manner, South Korea can choose between discreet nuclearization and conditional nuclearization. The former is to proceed its nuclear armament secretly without any official affirmation nor denial like Israel did and make its people and the international community aware of it through informal channels while the latter is to push ahead with nuclearization and declare that South Korea will abandon its nuclear weapons development program only if the North abandons its own.
The discreet nuclearization can defuse the international community’s opposition. However, in this scenario, it will be difficult to pursue a nuclear arms reduction agreement with North Korea. Therefore, it is more desirable to seek first discreet nuclear armament through close cooperation with the U.S., then pursue a nuclear arms reduction agreement with the North, after completing its nuclear capabilities, under the condition that “South Korea will abandon its nuclear arms only if the North abandons its own.”
The DPRK has been ignoring the ROK, saying, “Non-nuclear South Korean forces are no match for the nuclear-armed North Korean forces.” However, if Seoul makes clear its stance on the “conditional nuclearization” after completing its own nuclear capabilities, Pyongyang will have to seriously consider having inter-Korean military talks and nuclear arms reduction negotiations.
Some American experts have warned that “South Korea will have to pay a high price, including sanctions imposed under the Glenn Amendment, if it withdraws from the NPT and conducts a nuclear test to acquire nuclear weapons.” However, such an attitude is not only unreasonable but also undermines the spirit of the ROK-U.S. alliance since South Korea’s pursuit of nuclearization is for the nation’s survival, in the face of a serious North Korean nuclear threat. If South Korea fails to achieve inter-Korean nuclear balance, this will put both South Korea and the U.S. homeland in danger of North Korean nuclear threat and nuclear proliferation. Moreover, it is not appropriate to assume that the ROK will follow the nuclearization path of India, Pakistan and the DPRK because South Korea is known to already have the capability to manufacture atomic bombs equivalent to the ones that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the World War II, even without conducting nuclear tests.
◯ Stage 4: Achieving quasi-denuclearization through inter-Korean nuclear arms reduction agreement
In case of North Korea’s refusal to have inter-Korean nuclear arms reduction negotiations, South Korea will have no choice but to retain the number of nuclear weapons that the North is estimated to have made. However, Pyongyang cannot unreasonably continue its nuclear arms race with Seoul, which possesses more than 4,000 nuclear bombs’ worth of fissile material. In the end, when the DPRK realizes its limitations, inter-Korean military dialogue can begin, aiming at the suspension of the nuclear arms race and reduction of nuclear weapons.
It is hardly possible for Pyongyang to accept “complete denuclearization” in the foreseeable future due to its absolute conventional inferiority to Seoul. In this context, it is reasonable to pursue “quasi-denuclearization” through inter-Korean nuclear arms reduction discussions, aiming at reducing the number of nuclear warheads below ten. Simultaneously, Seoul must start discussing with Washington about progressive sanctions relief, proportional to the level of Pyongyang’s nuclear arms reduction. The number “below ten” is significant since it will be hard to imagine that Pyongyang, with such few nuclear warheads, will use them for a preemptive attack instead of using them defensively. The possibility of nuclear proliferation will also be decreased accordingly. Such reduction—below ten—is thus expected to reduce the North Korean nuclear threat, raising the threshold for using nuclear weapons and ensuring a greater security around the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and the U.S. homeland.
If North Korean warheads are progressively discarded after being taken out to China, the international community may consider corresponding measures as follows:
- At the point of 20% disposal of North Korean nuclear weapons, Washington and Tokyo establish liaison offices in Pyongyang while the UNSC lifts the restrictions on refined petroleum exports to North Korea. Mt. Kumgang tour program for South Koreans and activities of the Kaesong Industrial Complex can be resumed.
- At the point of 40% disposal, the U.S. and Japan set up consular relations with the DPRK while the UNSC lifts its cap on North Korea’s mineral exports. South Korea starts discussing the projects to build cross-border roads and railways connecting the two Koreas and China.
- At the point of 60% disposal, the U.S. and Japan normalize ties with North Korea while the UNSC lifts restrictions on North Korean exports of seafood and some other categories. South Korea starts investing in a North Korean special economic zone
- At the point of 80% disposal, the four parties (two Koreas, the U.S., and China) sign a peace agreement and the UNSC lifts 80% of restrictions against the DPRK.
If an inter-Korean nuclear arms reduction agreement succeeds to effectively reduce North Korean nuclear arsenal and proportionately relieve UNSC sanctions against Pyongyang, that will in turn ease the hostile relations between the U.S. and North Korea, hence significantly reducing the possibility of a nuclear war between the two countries. Therefore, American experts are rather recommended to actively support South Korean indigenous nuclearization so that the country will be able to effectively reduce and manage the North Korean nuclear threat, rather than blindly opposing the idea under the influence of political bias.
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Previous: The Case for South Korean Nuclearization, Part I: The Failure of Denuclearizing North Korea
Next: How the U.S. and Korea could maintain close relations and a military alliance in a post-nuclearization world.
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