By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network
The North Korean nuclear issue will be one of the biggest foreign policy issues for South Korea's presidential election scheduled for March next year, particularly whether South Korea should acquire nuclear capabilities.
Rep. Hong Joon-pyo and former Rep. Yoo Seung-min, both candidates in the People Power Party presidential primary, called for a NATO-style nuclear sharing.
"North Korea's nuclear weapons program has now reached the final stage of developing submarine-launched ballistic missile," Hong wrote in a social media post on Saturday, adding, "We will soon become slaves to the North Korean nuclear program."
Hong says the solution is to "persuade the US to actively pursue a NATO-style nuclear sharing policy in Korea to balance out the North." Hong had already pledged to redeploy US tactical nuclear weapons during the 2017 presidential election.
Other voices have also resonated with Hong's arguments. Yoo, the former lawmaker, who had put forward the same pledges as Hong in the 2017 presidential election, said, "if South Korea and the US. enter into a nuclear sharing agreement which would make the US nuclear capacities the shared assets of the two countries, it would become the strongest deterrent against North Korea's nukes," and that "nuclear sharing is a game-changer."
In particular, he claimed he would persuade the US to obtain NATO-style nuclear sharing when elected president, adding, "if nuclear sharing is not possible, we need our own nuclear armament." He intends to engage in diplomatic talks with the US using the possibility of South Korea developing nuclear weapons separately as leverage.
Since the days of the Liberty Korea Party, the People Power Party has consistently argued that "North Korean nukes should be countered with nuclear weapons of our own," whether that be independent nuclear armament, US redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, or NATO-style nuclear sharing.
After losing to Moon Jae-in in the presidential election of 2017, the party has demanded the government push for NATO-style nuclear sharing. For example, then-floor leader Na Kyung-won held an emergency press conference in July 2019 for this reason. Yoon Sang-hyun, former chairman of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, had said then that "it would be the icing on the cake if we were to sign a nuclear sharing agreement with the United States."
As the upcoming presidential election approaches, the People Power Party is giving off signs of making this pledge central to its national security platform.
Considering that North Korea has continued to strengthen its nuclear capabilities and advocated for the "modernization of nuclear weapons" at the Eighth Workers Party of Korea Congress in January, this move is not entirely incomprehensible. However, it is necessary to examine whether the push for NATO-style nuclear sharing is based on false assumptions.
One might assume that implementing NATO-style nuclear sharing would mean South Korea getting access to US nuclear weapons. But this is not the case. NATO's nuclear deterrence relies on the forward deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe, which is based on the nuclear-sharing arrangements signed between the United States and NATO member states. The main point of the agreement is that NATO members' dual-use fighter jets will be used to transport US nuclear weapons.
Technically, however, the agreement is not that US nuclear weapons will be shared with the NATO members providing the fighter jets. According to NATO's official position, "the United States has full control of these weapons at all times." As a result, even if a NATO member loads US nuclear weapons on their fighter jets, the US president has the sole right to manage and use them. In other words, it is not that NATO members share the rights to American nuclear weapons, but rather that the United States shares NATO's fighter jets.
NATO's nuclear sharing is in line with the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Article 1 of the NPT states that nuclear powers "undertake not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons [...] or control over such weapons [...] directly, or indirectly". Article 2 stipulates that a non-nuclear state will not "receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons [...] or of control over such weapons [...] directly, or indirectly". NATO's official position in this regard is that the nuclear-sharing agreement "conforms with Articles 1 and 2 of the NPT, which prohibit the transfer of control of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states," because "the nuclear-weapon states of the Alliance maintain absolute control and custody of their nuclear weapons."
Let's wrap this up. Even if a NATO-style nuclear-sharing agreement is reached between South Korea and the US, South Korea would not gain access to the US's nuclear weapons. Instead, the US would share South Korean fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The US president would have full authority to use nuclear weapons on South Korean fighter jets. The People Power Party's pledge for a NATO-style nuclear sharing argument is ineffective because it overlooks this reality.
Some might ask whether the nuclear-sharing agreement between South Korea and the US could be done in a way where South Korea has control over US nuclear weapons. This, however, would violate the NPT head-on. Why should South Korea, a proud NPT member and a model country for international nonproliferation, make such a choice? Would the Biden administration, which has emphasized the restoration of the nuclear proliferation system shaken during the Trump administration, accept this demand?
Another thing to note is that South Korea's conservatives, including the People Power Party, emphasize trust with the US, frequently attacking the Moon Jae-in administration for aggravating the trust in our alliance. But at the same time, conservatives argue that the US nuclear umbrella, without the further support of the redeployment or sharing of US tactical nuclear weapons, is hard to trust. In other words, the conservatives' understanding of the trust between South Korea and the US goes back and forth to whatever serves their interest at the moment.
The conservatives argue for a NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangement because they find the US nuclear umbrella unreliable. However, the US had held its nuclear umbrella for its allies against the Soviet Union, which had the capabilities to exterminate the US.
It's unlikely that the same US would hesitate to open its nuclear umbrella for South Korea because of North Korean nuclear threats, and it is more realistic to assume that the US would show a strong commitment to retaliation if North Korea ever dared to attack.
The US nuclear umbrella guarantees the security of the US' main strategic partners, not just South Korea. If the US were to cave in to North Korea's nuclear threats, the US would instantly lose its allies' trust. And trust is at the core of any alliance. This is why there is no scenario in which the US will give up on South Korea because that will weaken the US' other alliances.
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