[Column] Lessons from Park Chung-hee’s pursuit of nuclear arms

Posted on : 2024-07-10 17:42 KST Modified on : 2024-07-10 17:42 KST
Though times have changed, South Korea could find itself in a similar position to that it was in in the 1970s
Donald Trump takes part in a presidential debate against incumbent Joe Biden hosted by CNN on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta, GA. (AP/Yonhap)
Donald Trump takes part in a presidential debate against incumbent Joe Biden hosted by CNN on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta, GA. (AP/Yonhap)

By Gil Yun-hyung, editorial writer

As a member of the progressive media who has advocated for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, I have done my best to refrain from making a case for Korea to independently arm itself with nuclear weapons. However, with North Korea establishing itself as a nuclear power and pursuing an aggressive nuclear doctrine before going on to restore its Cold War-era alliance with Russia, I am left in the position of having to give this issue serious thought. 

Following US President Joe Biden’s disastrous defeat in the presidential debate held on June 27, there’s never been a greater likelihood that Donald Trump, who has called for the withdrawal of the US troops from Korea, will return to the White House. If Trump returns to power in January, it appears clear that talks on both South Korea’s nuclear armament and the cutting back or withdrawal of the US forces will naturally emerge as a major issue for the two countries.

At this time, the principle that should serve as the starting point for such discussions is the fact that South Korea cannot unilaterally withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and build nuclear weapons like North Korea — nor can it develop nuclear technology in secret by evading the international community’s scrutiny in a manner akin to Park Chung-hee. 

In the end, there will be no choice but to make this decision in consultation with the US, our only ally and perennial superpower. The final conclusion will likely emerge from the interaction between several factors including Korea’s desire to have nuclear weapons, level-headed calculations on the part of the US, and vehement opposition from China and North Korea.

When considering this, one precedent that should serve as reference is the withdrawal of the US troops from Korea during the Richard Nixon administration in the early 1970s and the Korean government’s response. (The discussion at the policy dialogue held by the Korea National Diplomatic Academy from July 4-5 on the topic of “The International Order After the US Presidential Election” was of great help.) 

When Nixon announced his “Guam doctrine” in July 1969 that informed Asian nations they would henceforth be responsible for the security of their region, the US promptly brought the Vietnam War to an end and began cutting back the number of troops stationed in Asia, including US Forces Korea. If Trump takes office, he may rapidly bring about an end to the war in Ukraine he claimed he could “have done in 24 hours” and attempt to reduce the scale of the USFK, an issue that was left to be dealt with in a second term.

Faced with the same situation half a century ago, Park Chung-hee sought to improve North-South relations through the July 4 South-North Joint Communiqué of 1972 while simultaneously promoting self-reliance in national defense and nuclear development. Following heated negotiations between Korea and the US, the latter agreed to provide US$1.5 billion in free and paid military aid in exchange for withdrawing the 7th Infantry Division (18,000 troops). The self-reliant national defense pursued by the Korean government went on to achieve great success, but independent nuclear armament was abandoned halfway due to strong pressure from the US.

In a second Trump administration, the main point of contention in Korea-US negotiations would be how many “nuclear options” Korea can obtain from the US in exchange for agreeing to the withdrawal of US troops. Korean experts who support nuclear armament believe that even if Korea is unable to obtain independent nuclear armament, it is imperative to secure nuclear latency on a level equivalent to Japan. 

The US afforded Japan the rights to uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in their 1988 nuclear cooperation agreement. With this capacity, Korea would join Japan in having the ability to build nuclear bombs in a relatively short period of time from the moment the government decided to do so.

However, we must keep a cool head. The decision by the US to grant Japan this capacity was premised on the nuclear fuel cycle plan that stated plutonium would be used for peaceful purposes. The crux of this plan involved building fast-breeder reactors, which are already a technological failure, and Japan is currently postponing the construction of a reprocessing facility in Aomori Prefecture for the 26th time. Perhaps this is why Japan has loudly proclaimed the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” out of fear that the international community would take issue with the country’s latent nuclear capacity. 

If Korea were to ignore these complexities and abruptly demand the same reprocessing rights for a plainly military purpose, the US would be placed in a sticky situation. The more noise Korea makes, the narrower the scope of obtainable nuclear options becomes.

The final point I would like to mention is the possibility of aggression from the Yoon Suk-yeol administration. Park Chung-hee ultimately embarked on the October Restoration, commonly known as “Yushin,” merely a few months after advocating for North-South reconciliation. Backed into a corner on several fronts, there is a chance that Yoon spins this into a security crisis and ramps up authoritarian control once discussions begin on the US troop withdrawal. The argument in favor of independent nuclear armament could also be co-opted by conservatives to put another People Power Party president in power. 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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