Is Nuclear Deterrence a Viable Option in the Korean Peninsula?

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“A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable, and will result in the end of the North Korean regime”

– US President Joe Biden

26th April, 2023

The statement by US president Joe Biden during the celebration of US-Republic of Korea’s (ROK) 70th anniversary of bilateral relations signifies an reaffirmation and strengthening of defense relations between the two countries. Undoubtedly, the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea has heightened anxieties on the Korean Peninsula. The geographical proximity and the history of hostility with its neighbors like Japan and South Korea has created a volatile security environment. Raising an overall concern and generating a range of reactions from the neighboring countries and international communities. The increasing nuclear threat from North Korea has compelled the nations in the area to improve their own military capabilities and security posture. North Korea’s nuclearization has also altered regional dynamics, particularly in reference to global powers like China and the United States. The United States, as a key ally of South Korea, has bolstered its military presence in the region and strengthened its commitment to the defense of South Korea in response to North Korea’s nuclear program. This, in turn, has triggered reactions from China, which views the increased U.S. military presence as a potential encroachment on its strategic interests and utilizes North Korea as a buffer state in its engagement in the region. Amidst this heightened tension. The USA-South Korea unveiled the “Washington Declaration” on 26th April, under which the US nuclear submarines and weapons would reestablish its presence in the peninsula, prompting the discussion on nuclear deterrence in the peninsula.

A Glimpse on the History of Tension in Korean Peninsula

A complicated history, including the Japanese imperialism in Korea, the Korean War, the impact of the Cold War, and its ideological intricacies, is the root cause of the dispute between North Korea and South Korea. In order to grasp the present issues on the Korean Peninsula, this historical backdrop must be understood first. After years of war, Japanese imperialism on Korea was established in 1910, which lasted till the end of the second world war, leaving a strong anti-Japanese sentiment among the Koreans. After the victory of the allied forces in the second world war, the battle of ideological influence between US led capitalism and Soviet led Communism started and the peninsula fall prey to that rivalry.  The 1950–1953 Korean War, which split North and South Korea in two, was a outburst of the rivalry, when North Korea attacked South Korea in order to unite the peninsula under communist government, it was supported by the Soviet Union and China. The United States and its allies responded by interfering to help South Korea.

The two nations are still technically at war because the conflict ended in 1953 just with an armistice deal and creating a dividing line of demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula were further aggravated by the impact of the Cold War. North and South Korea’s division was paralleled in the ideological conflict between the US and the USSR. While South Korea adopted capitalism and allied with the United States pursuing economic development, North Korea embraced communism, sided with the Soviet Union, and advocated self-reliance. Beyond the Cold War era, the ongoing tension persisted and is still important today. The United States has kept a military presence in South Korea as part of its 1953 security guarantee deal and it has stemmed further constraint. Under the pretext of dissuading its most ferocious adversary, the US, North Korea began to advance its nuclear and missile programs. It eventually sparked regional and global concerns with its aggressive actions and statements. Additionally, the tension is at its greatest point in modern times due to North Korea’s repeated nuclear testing and missile launches.

Nuclearization of Korean Peninsula

The nuclearization of the Korean peninsula first started during the cold war when as part of its security agreement with South Korea, the United States stationed its nuclear forces in the region. However, the US withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s as part of non-proliferation efforts and a shift towards relying on extended deterrence through its strategic nuclear forces. The absence of US nuclear forces in the Korean Peninsula had both symbolic and practical implications. Symbolically, it signified a commitment to denuclearization and non-proliferation efforts in the region. Practically, it assured North Korea of no immediate escalation to the nuclear force. However, fresh tension started in the peninsula when North Korea began pursuing nuclear weapons in the 1980s. The country conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, followed by subsequent tests in 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017. These tests demonstrated North Korea’s advancements in nuclear capabilities and heightening tensions on the Peninsula.

The frequency and pace of North Korea’s nuclear tests have had a substantial influence on the security and stability of the region because of concerns about the regime’s objectives and the possibility of accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons. It calls into question the fragile power dynamics in the peninsula and has raised concerns about a possible arms race. There is a growing popular demand in South Korea to develop nuclear capabilities of its own and not just rely on the US for its security. However, in late April this year, the USA and South Korea unveiled the Washington Declaration under which the USA has pledged to station its nuclear submarines in the peninsula, providing direct nuclear protection under its security umbrella. The deployment is part of establishing nuclear deterrence in the region.

The Washington Declaration

On April 26th, the United States and South Korea unveiled a groundbreaking plan, the Washington Declaration, to address the persistent nuclear threat emanating from North Korea. At the heart of this plan is the unwavering commitment of the United States to respond to any attacks on its allies and partners, encompassing both nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios. The Washington Declaration emphasizes that the United States will respond comprehensively “across the spectrum of potential nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios,” while South Korea maintains its non-nuclear status and adheres to the conditions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a testament to the seriousness of the threat, both countries have agreed to form the U.S.–ROK Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), establish immediate bilateral presidential consultations, and enhance cooperation on nuclear and strategic planning. This bilateral consultation mechanism allows South Korea to gain insight into the United States’ planning for major contingencies, empowering them with a stronger voice in discussions regarding U.S. weapons deployment. One significant development resulting from the Washington Declaration is the periodic docking of U.S. nuclear-armed submarines and deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea. This move signifies the reestablishment of U.S. nuclear presence in the region after decades long absence.

Is Nuclear Deterrence a Viable Option?

The question of whether nuclear deterrence is a viable option in the Korean Peninsula is a matter of considerable debate and concern. Given the ongoing tensions and North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, some contend that nuclear deterrence might act as a viable deterrent against future aggression. Others, however, question its efficacy and draw attention to the dangers and difficulties involved in such a plan. Nuclear deterrence proponents contend that having a nuclear deterrent may discourage North Korea from acting hostilely. This is justified by the idea that the possibility of severe retribution would act as a strong deterrence and drive North Korea to show restraint. They think that having a credible and powerful nuclear deterrent will guarantee South Korea’s safety and existence by serving as an effective deterrent to any prospective nuclear or conventional assault. Advocates often cite past instances, such as the Cold War, in which nuclear deterrent was essential for preserving stability and peace. They contend that the Korean Peninsula might adopt a similar dynamic, averting direct conflict and promoting diplomatic solutions. Therefore, the Washington Declaration’s proposal to re-deploy nuclear capacity to South Korea is a practical measure for guaranteeing security and the most effective form of deterrence.

The feasibility of nuclear deterrence on the Korean Peninsula, however, is the subject of various legitimate concerns raised by critics. The North Korean regime’s unpredictability is one of the main causes for concern. The regime’s history of provocative behavior and rhetoric raises the issue of how much the fear of nuclear retaliation would dissuade it. It is difficult to assess how the leadership in Pyongyang would respond to a situation where the stakes are so high, potentially leading to miscalculations and accidental escalations.  Despite its commitment in the Washington Declaration to not do so, there is rising public pressure in South Korea to seek its own nuclear deterrent and build its own nuclear capabilities. However, doing so would only serve to heighten tensions with North Korea. It may perpetuate a state of mistrust and could limit the exploration of alternative approaches, such as diplomatic negotiations, confidence-building measures, and economic cooperation.

The Washington Declaration’s recommendation to redeploy nuclear weapons and submarines on the Korean Peninsula in order to build up a stronger nuclear deterrent against North Korea’s threat signifies a substantial change in the regional security dynamics. However, there is rising doubt about the success and viability of this strategy. The North Korean regime’s unpredictability, the potential to start an arms race, and the capacity to thwart diplomatic attempts are all causes for concern. Furthermore, it is still unclear if nuclear deterrence would be helpful in bringing about long-term stability and resolving the fundamental problems on the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, it is essential to take a holistic strategy that combines diplomatic, political, and economic steps in order to lower tensions, encourage communication, and establish long-term peace and stability in the region.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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