(MENAFN- Asia Times) If you're American and, like most Americans, you don't pay much attention to South Korean politics, you may have been surprised by the announcement Joe Biden and South Korea's Yoon Suk Yeol made when Yoon visited Washington in April.
The two presidents issued a“washington declaration” that gives South Korea a say in any US use of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and commits the South Koreans not to develop their own nukes.
It's fair to say most Americans were unaware that the South Koreans were thinking about getting the bomb. But they were – and, although Yoon signed, it's by no means certain that the declaration has extinguished those thoughts.
Republic of Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol holds an acoustic guitar signed by Don McClean with US President Joe Biden at the White House on April 26, 2023. Yoon, a karaoke fan, sang McClean's“American Pie.” It was during that visit that the two signed the Washington Declaration. Photo: Yonhap
South Korea is a solid US ally, a free-market democracy that both hosts 28,000 American troops on its soil and has sent its own troops to fight alongside the US in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It paid 90% of the US$10.8 billion to build up the base south of Seoul used by US troops.
South Korea is an important country for us farmers and ranchers . It's the number 6 overseas market for US ag products, having bought $9.34 billion worth in 2022. Whereas many countries only import commodities from the US, the South Koreans' biggest purchase, to the tune of $2.7 billion, was a value-added product, beef.
according to pew research Center, 89% of South Koreans have a favorable view of the United States, the most in Asia and second worldwide only to Poland. Think about that: The South Korean public views the US favorably but prefers not to rely on the US nuclear umbrella.
Despite the strong ties, the south Korean president was talking earlier this year about developing nukes. polls showed 71% of South Koreans in favor.
It's not hard to guess why. The unimpressive US withdrawal from Afghanistan couldn't have inspired confidence in South Korea. There's also concern that a re-elected Donald Trump might resume his push to withdraw US troops from South Korea.
And with North Korea having missiles capable of reaching the continental US, South Koreans naturally wonder: Would the US put San Francisco at risk to save Seoul?
US reliability was also in question the last time South Korea contemplated developing nukes. That was during the 1970s, when the US was pulling out of South Vietnam and Cambodia.
President Gerald R Ford and South Korean 'President for Life' Park Chung-hee at the arrival ceremony for Ford in Seoul on November 22, 1974. Before the stone-faced Ford's visit, US intelligence had been learning about South Korea's secret nuclear program. Photo courtesy of Gerald R Ford Library
Seoul backed off when Washington said South Korea could have either a US alliance or nuclear weapons but not both. Seoul chose the alliance.
Back then, South Korea was a poor developing country ruled by a dictator. Today it's a developed country that elects its rulers. For some South Koreans, having nuclear weapons is about national prestige as much as security. Their starving, backward cousins to the north have nukes. Why shouldn't they?
Perhaps as important as worries about US reliability is the increasing seriousness of the threat. North Korea is clearly not going to be talked out of its nukes. The US has all but stopped trying.
What about MAD?
Would it really be such a bad thing if South Korea developed its own nuclear weapons? It would clearly be a blow to nuclear nonproliferation, a policy supported by every president for the last seven decades, including Trump.
Although that policy hasn't stopped proliferation, it has limited it. In the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy predicted that by 1975, 10 to 20 countries would have nuclear weapons. The world only got to nine recently, when North Korea got the bomb.
A devil's advocate might say,“Let mutually assured destruction work its magic.” India and Pakistan defied the nuclear nonproliferation consensus and neither has used nukes against the other. Might not a South Korean bomb actually lessen the risk of nuclear catastrophe by deterring North Korea?
North Korea has nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and 71% of South Koreans want their country to have them, too. Map: Wikimedia Commons
Non-proliferation advocates have a ready answer. The greater the number of countries that have nuclear weapons, the greater the chances of a nuclear catastrophe owing to accident or miscalculation or the increased risk of terrorists getting nukes.
President Biden has stressed that the US umbrella provides deterrence, vowing that any North Korean nuclear attack on the US or its allies would“result in the end” of the regime in Pyongyang.
By offering South Korea more say in the use of US weapons, the Biden administration hopes to prevent yet another country from going nuclear. Graham Allison, a noted Harvard expert, calls the Washington Declaration a“big deal.”
Whether it's a big enough deal to head off further nuclear proliferation remains to be seen.
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