Mark HibbsSouth Korea’s Nuclear Defense

In a few weeks, South Korea’s newly-elected President, Park Geun-hye, will arrive in the United States on her first state visit. Between now and then, Washington and Seoul will be working on a diplomatic response to accompany their resolve not to blink should Kim Jong-un launch an attack, and they also want to wrap up two years of negotiations on a new bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation. John Kerry will soon be on the way to South Korea, and the ROK diplomat leading the nuclear cooperation talks, Ambassador Park Ro-byung, will soon come to Washington.

Beforehand–on Monday and Tuesday–we at the Carnegie Endowment will be putting on the 2013 version of the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. And at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, April 9, we’ll give the floor to Chung Mong-joon, a seven-year member of the Korean National Assembly and former Chairman of Korea’s Grand National Party.

I saw Chung Mong-joon in Seoul in February on occasion of the Asan 2013 Nuclear Forum, for which he served as Honorary Chairman. A couple days before, North Korea had carried out its third nuclear test. En route to Seoul for the conference, we learned that the agenda of the meeting would be changed to reflect the urgency of Pyongyang’s escalation of its nuclear threats.

Chung and Bob Gallucci opened the Asan Conference on February 19. The total absence of Gallucci’s usual light touch in his remarks set the tone of the conference and, following up, Chung rubbed it in for all who cared to listen: The U.S. must re-deploy theater nuclear weapons on South Korean territory “because the threat of a counter nuclear force is the only thing that will discourage North Korea from developing its nuclear arsenal.” Beyond that, he said, the U.S.-ROK alliance “has been an abject failure” leading some South Koreans to conclude that South Korea would never be able to negotiate at eye-level with North Korea unless it had its own nuclear deterrent.

So I have a few questions that I hope find answers during and around Chung Mong-joon’s appearance on Tuesday:

  • Who, exactly, really advocates South Korea having nuclear weapons?
  • Has the South Korean strategic community seriously explored what having nuclear weapons would mean for South Korea?
  • What would be South Korea’s path to obtaining nuclear weapons?
  • What would be the cost-benefit calculus?
  • Doesn’t the relatively nonplussed response of ROK citizens to the North’s recent escalation imply instead that they are not intimidated and therefore are not prepared to take the risks associated with reaching for nuclear weapons?

Then there’s the issue of the ongoing nuclear cooperation agreement negotiation.

The official South Korean view is that this negotiation has nothing to do with North Korea and with nuclear weapons. I’m not satisfied that’s true.

Both parties agree on nearly all of the text for a new agreement but there are serious differences over one major issue: South Korea wants the United States to give it carte blanche approval to pyroprocess spent fuel and enrich uranium covered by U.S. consent rights under the current agreement which expires next year.

The U.S. so far is not prepared to agree to this.

The more-or-less official reason for the U.S. position is threefold: 1.) The U.S. wants to discourage the spread of enrichment and reprocessing (including pyroprocessing) capabilities beyond countries which already are deploying them; 2.) enrichment and pyroprocessing by the ROK would be contrary to the 1992 agreement by both Korean states not to do that on their territories; and 3.) Reprocessing and enrichment in South Korea would exacerbate tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the region.

From Washington’s point of view, reason 1. looks straightforward: If the ROK is given programatic approval to reprocess and enrich, other states will be encouraged to follow suit.

Reason 2. is more of a problem–including for South Korea. Seoul’s 1992 no-enrichment and no-reprocessing pledge linked these sensitive nuclear technologies to concern about nuclear weapons proliferation. South Korean advocates can press their case for enrichment and reprocessing now because North Korea violated its pledge and is using sensitive fuel processing technology to make nuclear weapons.

Then there is reason 3: “Increased tension on the Korean peninsula and in the region.” That sounds like a State Department formula intended to cover any unpleasant development. What does it really mean? Does it include residual U.S. concern about the absoluteness of South Korea’s NPT commitment? A few people who will not speak for the record will express the view that it does. Others may disagree.

Carnegie’s Doug Paal will lead the discussion after Chung Mong-joon’s remarks on Tuesday morning. Perhaps we’ll get authoritative answers to these questions then and throughout the conference.


  1. Kwanghoon (History)

    Thank you for your thoughtful questions, Mr. Hibbs. But I don’t think there is any politician who officially and seriously argues necessity of building nuclear weapon capability in South Korea. Mr. Chung is a bit unique case. Although some right-wing politicians intentionally imply reprocessing for weapon development, I think it’s mainly for short term popularity.

    Ironically, if there is any politician who genuinely considers about nuclear weapon, she or he wouldn’t mention about it at all in such an internationally renowned and open conference. Rather, I would like to suggest you a kind of blind spot of this issue for your discussion in the early of next week.

    The real question which is neither seriously raised nor answered is whether the pyro-processing option can solve South Korea’s spent fuel management issue. For example, South Korean nuclear community argues the country’s some nuclear power plants will be shut down from 2016 due to lack of space in temporary spent fuel pools. However, the pyro-processing, their alternative, won’t be available in commercial scale within the next two decades.
    Even in the case of Japan which operates commercial scale PUREX reprocessing plants, 17 nuclear power plants out of 54 will reach to saturation of their spent fuel pools in 2018. In this sense, neither Pyro nor PUREX option seems to work in reducing burdens of spent fuels management. I hope further discussions address this issue more thoroughly. Thank you.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “Doesn’t the relatively nonplussed response of ROK citizens to the North’s recent escalation imply instead that they are not intimidated?”
    South Koreans may feel (rightly or wrongly) that war is unlikely in the short term. If war does happen under the new North Korean leader, it is more likely when he is young, untested, and his grip on power least certain.

    “and therefore [ROK citizens] are not prepared to take the risks associated with reaching for nuclear weapons?”
    This is a question about what South Korea is prepared to do over the long term. If they are worried about war over the long term, the U.S. nuclear deterrence may be adequate for now, but what happens if North Korea expands its capabilities? If North Korea (someday) can seriously damage the U.S. in any war, how likely is it that the U.S. would choose to avenge a war on South Korea?

    “What would be the cost-benefit calculus?” Right now, we are talking about whether South Korea should have the option (someday) of being able to build nuclear weapons to counter North Korean capabilities. Given current trends, that option would seem to be quite valuable to South Korea. The only way to reduce the value of that option is to severely curtail future North Korean capabilities (in terms of both nukes and missiles) to inflict significant damage on the U.S.

  3. Nick (History)

    Is there going to be a simulcast for tomorrow’s conference? If not, will there be a video of the event later on? I did not see any information.

  4. SQ (History)

    The reasoning behind inviting Chung MJ wasn’t obvious to me at first. He has his own soapbox in Seoul from which to make pronouncements, and his own means of convening the U.S. nuclear policy community to hear those messages.

    Now, reading this post, the picture becomes clearer. In Washington, DC on this occasion, the rest of the world will have the opportunity to learn from Chung the low estate into which the NPT has fallen in South Korea. It may come as a surprise to many that the NPT just doesn’t figure into the conversation there.

    And Chung will get to hear about the importance of the NPT from the rest of the world. Or so I reckon.

    • mark (History)


      In my view Chung Mong-joon’s appearance at Carnegie is an opportunity for him to field questions from the expert community, especially outside Korea where of course he is very well known. He has been cited in international media accounts as appearing to favor nuclear security policies which do not represent the political mainstream. The world outside Korea wants to know what politicians in Korea involved in security policy and opinion formation are doing and thinking about these issues. Carnegie has scheduled a discussion following MJ’s remarks for this reason.

      Inviting Chung Mong-joon was not a pavlovian response by the conference organizers to capitalize on sensational claims in February and March that South Korea aims to develop nuclear weapons.

      The Church of Non-Proliferation and Disarmament can organize a meeting in Washington where people with views outside the mainstream are excluded. We can pre-program a kumbaya moment. That’s not what we have in mind.

      South Korea is a parliamentary democracy and its people have the right to make decisions for themselves. I would hope that MJ’s appearance this week will contribute to decision making in the ROK on the basis of well-founded information and critically-tested arguments.

    • SQ (History)


      If the opinion polls are any indication, Chung does indeed represent the mainstream on this issue. And who, in South Korea, is arguing the opposite case?

      I do not think Art X is a realistic prospect for South Korea as long as it wishes to maintain the alliance with the United States. But the public doesn’t seem aware of this constraint, and Chung is speaking directly to that sort of uninformed sentiment.

      It’s not the same as educating the South Korean public, but I hope Chung himself gets more of an education that it’s not cost-free for South Korea to dream dreams of nuclear weapons possession.

  5. Rob Goldston (History)

    What is at stake in the immediate future is the value of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to our allies. How much are we willing to risk to protect Seoul and Tokyo? And how much will we ask South Korea and Japan to risk first? A lot rests on what the U.S. does when North Korea next prepares to launch a missile, of whatever range, having now threatened a preemptive nuclear strike. The best case scenario is that tensions ratchet way down before North Korea undertakes another test launch. The next base case is that we have adequate missile defense to protect our allies with high confidence, and we shoot down any missile launched toward them, nuclear armed or not. Bad as these are, the other cases look much worse. And these first two might be counter-factual. I hope not. If we militarily prevent the launch of a North Korean missile, we move towards KW-II. If we don’t, and we don’t shoot down a North Korean missile, and it lands harmlessly in the ocean, we get to keep playing this deadly game. This is perhaps the most likely strategy North Korea will take, if it chooses to launch a missile. However, if a North Korean missile lands in South Korea or Japan, all of our allies learn that they take the first risk. This could drive some to reconsider their renunciation of nuclear weapons. And, also, we have KW-II.

    • Magpie (History)

      Alright, I’m going to unzip my ignorance and waggle it about for all to see, but:

      “A lot rests on what the U.S. does when North Korea next prepares to launch a missile, of whatever range…”

      Am I missing something? Because, as I see it, a Musudan, on a TEL, in a warehouse (inside outside upside down), pretty much just has to drive out into the open, get an erection, get fuelled, and fire. The only signs of preparation before-hand would be a fuel truck diving along with absolutely no-one important anywhere near it. After that it’s just time-to-fuel, and off it goes.

      Isn’t that, well, pretty much the whole point of having TELs in the first place? To make it hard to find them and prevent them launching?

      So if anyone hits it, it’s going to have to be a rush-job, and there won’t really be time to prep the media or even properly get your artillerists out of bed. Confusion will be ensured.

      (Not suggesting *you’re* suggesting that should happen – quite the opposite – but I’ve seen quite a lot of such talk about the place).

      Hell, if they’re at the point of thinking people would pop a fuelling TEL (and that would represent an amazing public relations coup) NK could cheerfully start fake-fuelling a fake Musudan or two, get bombed, and have all sorts of contrived-moral-high-groundery and a lovely opportunity to hit back (in a strictly-limited artillery strike, well away from Seoul) with some genuine justification.

      Again (again again) if they are angling for a very quick, limited artillery war to raise their stock in the pendulous-scrotum department, getting someone to launch a strike before NK has actually done anything explicit is just the sort of trigger they’re probably praying for – and, indeed, angling for with all of this bluster. And remember, it’s not the US audience they’re playing to (obviously) whose contempt is unshakable. The NK audience probably isn’t much more relevant (if there were serious internal threats, I’m pretty sure we’d have heard *something* by now. To the contrary, there were signs Jong-un was calling plenty of shots back in his dad’s day).

      So, IM(v)HO, it seems the most likely object of this colourful mating ritual is China.

      In other words, a quick, sharp exchange that NK merely survives (which is tricky, but likely), and even better, can claim to have won (which is quite possible for some value of “won”, and depending on how friendly your translator is), is going to play very well to those in China who are increasingly interested in the bits of earth-and-water to their east. It doesn’t matter how justified the US thinks they are – most Americans wouldn’t blink if they started carpet-bombing – what matters is how the slightly-friendly-to-NK and slightly-wary-of-the-US Chinese people see it, after what would probably be a very short, very confused mess.

      Which would make a pre-emptive strike on any missile prep a serious blunder.

      So sez dis Magpie, anyway.

  6. kevin (History)

    South Korean Politicians’ responsibilities are to protect South Korean citizens before anyone else, period. SoKor Security is not for sale for US strategic interest in Northeast Asia. Is USA willing to stop economic trade and cut diplomacy with SoKor if SoKor build the nuclear weapons. If England, France, and Israel (all US allies) are any indication, the answer is NO. South Korean politicians must decide what comes 1st, just like what US politicians have done for US Citizens; that is to provide security. That is … uncompromising security of South Korea citizens fully controlled by South Koreans, otherwise always face the risk of unpredictable politics of outside world out of control of South Koreans. Security is foundation of democratic nation that does not risk falling because of uncontrolled political wind from outside. Because of weak political standing of SoKor politicians, many SoKor younger generation have to ask the question “why are young SoKor soldiers in the frontline facing nuclear NoKor, nuclear China, nuclear and nuclear Russia?”, just because USA Politicians and SoKor Politicians agree to take that CALCULATED risk where SoKor citizens will be the mass victims of miscalculation as non-nuclear status. Security is a RIGHT of individuals who are the citizens that make up the nation. SoKor politicians have failed at providing uncompromising security for SoKor Citizens while US Politicians have provided security of US Citizens. For USA politicians, security of USA trumps SoKor security or anyone else. Unfortunately, SoKor politicians are not as responsible as USA politicians. History would consider and recall this as corrupt SoKor politicians that trusted others for safety of their own citizens. But this is NOT new in world history…South Vietnam also depended on USA for security at one time. Miscalculation leads to their fall with many innocent South Vietnam children and women falling in a war that could have been prevented. Indeed, this is an embarrassment for SoKor politicians…… it is sign of weakness and lack of independence.

    • Magpie (History)

      The US has assured-retaliatory-destruction covered. No-one doubts it, surely.

      Any strike against suspected nuclear-launch-prep would be done conventionally, even if the US had to do it.

      Any interception of NK-launched missiles would be done conventionally, even if the US had to do it.

      What on earth would SK do with nukes, then?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The US has assured-retaliatory-destruction covered. No-one doubts it, surely.


      That’s been the theory since the arms control beginning of time.

      One can sense decreasing credibility of that in our allies.

    • Magpie (History)

      Nah, I think the allies are just getting swept up in the general wave of nationalism that’s been going around. ‘Bigger guns’ is the ‘tough on crime’ of international politician: meaningless, but vote-winny.

  7. Rene (History)

    I wonder why no one discusses the option of disarmament. I mean, I’ve heard people say that North Korea is doing saber rattling to get a good aid vs. disarmament deal from the US, but no one continues to say that we should definitely do the deal, apparently because that’s appeasement.

    I wonder if broadening the semantic field of appeasement would lead to the breakdown of NPT in East Asia. If South Korea builds nukes, I reckon Japan would too.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Fool me thrice, no more rice.

    • Rene (History)

      What’s the alternative? Sitting here till the Norks get the Plutonium line going and test an ICBM?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      There are several narratives in play. We can simplify to the strategic options – constructively engage, disengage and contain, or confront / defeat / overthrow.

      I think that the western liberal perspective has tried to decide between constructive engagement and disengage/contain, with a war (confront/defeat/overthrow) as something they are afraid NK will start but they really do not want to. Western conservative has tended towards disengage and contain with confront/defeat/overthrow as a feared but expected outcome, with some willingness to consider starting that but expecting NK will.

      A western hardline perspective is that they’ve cheated on everything we’ve agreed to with them and despite all we gave them, and that they keep poisoning good faith efforts.

      That is not the only one to consider or look at. However, it is certainly true at one level. That truth leads to people who got burned badly by the earlier tough negotiation efforts turning awry to argue for containment rather than constructive engagement.

      Two issues inside NK confound our efforts to formulate long term plans. Both relate to leadership.

      One, centralization of power means that when the centralization is effective, NK behavior can be at the whim of one person whose stability the west has always feared is unstable.

      Two, when the centralization is ineffective, there is a tension there that reinforces setting up external enemies to reinforce the internal leadership – i.e., the easiest way to get reluctant generals in line is sinking something or shelling something or a mini-sub full of commandos landing somewhere.

      It is possible that absent regime change, they will simply never be stable enough to reach an agreement the west will agree to, and that solves the wests’ concerns, and that they can and will hold to over long periods of time.

      Whether that means we take short term agreements we can verify and hope that the interludes are shorter and less catastrophic, or whether we stand back and stop trying (just contain), is a good question.

    • Rene (History)

      Thanks for your response, George. I guess I’m in favor of verifiable short-term agreements, even if they only mean stopping further nuclear advances (as opposed to complete disarmament). Given the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, I think regime change may achieve some goal in terms of WMD but would also create a cesspool of instability and political uncertainty. At least now the society is in control of a group of people to whom we can talk. I think the best possible scenario would be for North Korea to scale back some of its nuclear work in exchange for some form of economic incentive and engagement, which over the next few decades would create an increasingly sizable middle class who would then gradually make society more rational and government more representative (which is why I think it’s very sad they’re closing the joint North-South factories). I know it sounds idealistic, but something very similar happened in the case of China, which is eminently more rational than it was in the seventies. And given the catastrophic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think the Chinese model deserves serious attention.

      In the same vein, I think the current approach toward Syria and Iran is going to create huge problems in the long term for the stability and political future of the Middle East. I just have that Hagel speech in my head (“Great nations engage”) …

  8. rwendland (History)

    I’m a bit puzzled why the U.S. still thinks its reason #2 above, the 1992 Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, still carries any weight:

    a) it was never a treaty, eg it was never registered with the UN as treaties are required to per UN Charter Art. 102.

    b) when the Joint Declaration was signed NK had an operating reprocessing plant, and spent Magnox fuel that had to be reprocessed in the future for safety reasons, so it was clear immediate implementation could not be expected.

    c) the 1994 Agreed Framework merely states “The DPRK will consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, so the U.S. agreed that the Joint Declaration would not be immediately implemented.

    So overall it seems to me the Joint Declaration has no higher status than the Agreed Framework etc – a bilateral political agreement unenforceable in international law. And seemingly abandoned as the Agreed Framework has been. So I am puzzled that the U.S. still seems to promote it as a quasi-treaty.

  9. George William Herbert (History)

    Transcript is up:

    Interesting perspective. He’s right about one key thing – the US nuclear umbrella may succeed at deterring a nuclear war, but has failed at deterring nuclear menace and weapons program.

    I think that Mr. Chung is sidling up towards “you let these maniacs build an existential threat to us that we now need to stand up to”.

    Good questions from Mark and Michael Krepon and others.

    Out of curiosity, does anyone know the Chinese General’s (Maj. Gen. Yong Shu, from the transcript) job and area of responsibility? He asked a very timely question.

  10. keve (History)

    As prime example, Libya and Iraq which listen to UN and USA before their final destruction, NoKor will never give up their nuclear weapons, especially after NoKor placed into their constitutional law that nuclear weapons are part of NoKor security. But perhaps, NoKor are willing limit the number of nuclear weapons/missiles for normal economy and diplomatic exchange with USA. USA must become part of NoKor economy for USA to have any say into NoKor security(military 1st/SongGun) which depends on the economy. NoKor is very aware of the PROMISES that Libya and Iraq received and later agreements broken by the same politicians. Every politicians around the world have something in COMMON….they LIE, even to their own citizens. Recent events of sanction and military crisis show SANCTIONS do not work and have opposite effects while endangering South Korea and Japan citizens who feel threaten by this predictable outcome of sanction and threat cycle.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      I think I read in a book called “The Bomb: An unauthorized biography” that the UK’s nuclear small arsenal was supposed to deter the Soviet Unions large arsenal. But the problem was, if the Soviets hit first, all the UK could do was “destroy some Soviet cities out of spite.”

      The author was arguing that for detterance to work, both sides had to have enough nukes to wreck each others countries, after a first strike.

      North Korea is not in a position to produce more nuclear weapons numberically than the U.S. already has, is it?

    • Keve (History)

      Bradley Laing…….

      “destroy some Soviet cities out of spite”
      I disagree. Counter attack is not because of out of spite, but enforce to the enemy that there will be a price to pay for their action, and forces the issue of peace or diplomacy.

      “The author was arguing that for detterance to work, both sides had to have enough nukes to wreck each others countries, after a first strike.” What is “enough nukes” to destroy a nation? One nuclear attack on a major city would be enough to destroy the economy and million of lives affected. Now, what does NoKor have compare to what USA have in terms of economy? USA placing all of the bets on the table against NoKor which has very little…….. Not worth the game.

  11. Bradley Laing (History)

    Keve, I think you proved my arguments were weak ones.

    On the other hand, i realized my memory is fuzzy on one point: did the book suggest it was cities that would need to be targeted, or nuclear silos that would need to be targeted, for deterrence to work. I cannot remember what the book said, and targeting silos is different than targeting cities.