PROTECT JAPAN’S INTERESTS IN SEEKING CLOSER TIES WITH SOUTH KOREA
Seen from the big picture, strengthening tripartite cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the US clearly serves Japan’s national interests. China, North Korea, and Russia are developing—and speeding up increased production of—nuclear weapons and a variety of missiles that are difficult to intercept, including hypersonic aero-ballistic missiles. Behind North Korea and Russia looms China methodically preparing for an attack on Taiwan it may launch sooner than later. Given such circumstances, the US and Japan have been making strong efforts to prevent South Korea from tilting toward its authoritarian neighbors.
In his summit with President Joe Biden in Washington on April 26, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol pledged that his nation will not pursue its own nuclear weapons program and will instead observe the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in return for Washington’s commitment to extended deterrence to bolster South Korea’s national defense.
Harvard University’ Professor Graham Allison lauded the Washington Declaration signed by Biden and Yoon as “a ringing reminder of one of the greatest achievements of U.S. national security strategy.” Allison believes South Korea, subjected to increasing existential threats from the North, naturally ought to be more secure under an enhanced US nuclear umbrella. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida flew to Seoul for a summit with Yoon on May 7. Recognizing the strategic importance of significantly improving the bilateral relationship, the two heads of state pledged to look to the future. But it is incumbent on Kishida to prudently come to grips with Yoon as a political leader without becoming excessively optimistic or unduly negative. The actions Yoon takes as president of South Korea will have a critical bearing on Japan’s security not only in connection with the situation on the Korean Peninsula but in the event of a possible attack on Taiwan by China.
Takabumi Suzuoki, a Korean Peninsula expert and former reporter with the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, had this to say about Yoon last Friday when he appeared on my “Genron” weekly Internet news show:
“Yoon said in January that South Korea may build a nuclear arsenal of its own, depending on circumstances. But he has since given assent to Washington’s pledge to keep its nuclear umbrella over South Korea. However, pursuing his nation’s own nuclear weapons program and adhering to the NPT system aren’t mutually exclusive as far as Yoon is concerned. We ought to assume that beyond the NPT Yoon most likely will keep development of South Korea’s own nuclear weapons in mind.”
In a Q&A session following his address at Harvard Kennedy School after the summit in Washington, a student asked if Yoon actually wanted South Korea to make its own nuclear weapons. “We could make a nuclear weapon within a year if we wanted,” Yoon replied. “But things aren’t that simple. A nuclear weapon is not just about technology. It is also about complex politics and economics. We have to solve complex equations…”
It would not be mistaken to assume that Yoon’s true desire is the creation of his nation’s own nuclear arsenal. Yukimitsu Sanada, an international finance specialist and professor at Aichi Shukutoku University, Aichi Prefecture, observed:
“Yoon has a strong desire for not just a development of South Korea’s own nuclear weapons but long-range ballistic missiles as well. To that end, he is vigorously putting effort into space development.”
In February, South Korea announced it would invest 1.5 trillion won (US$1.22 billion) to launch a concerted effort to develop an ultra-small reconnaissance satellite by 2030. Also, should the nation decide to make its own nuclear weapons, experts generally see mounting them atop submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) as the most effective way to utilize them. With this in mind, South Korea has been endeavoring to increase the capabilities of its submarines. On April 18, 2022, the South Korean military succeeded in firing two SLBMs successively from one of its subs. Construction of new subs equipped with a vertical launching system enabling nuclear loading and launching is in progress, accelerating an improvement of the overall capability of its fleet, which includes a total of 23 subs.
The South Korean public is very positive about their nation having its own nuclear weapons, with multiple opinion surveys showing some 70% of respondents favoring nukes. Sanada cited an interesting reason:
“Most people in the South really do not expect the North to attack them with nukes when push comes to shove. They generally see Japan and America as targets for their own nukes. Frustration over their country having long been dictated to under strong US control is actually pretty strong even within the pro-US camp in South Korea.”
Describing what he was saying as a generalization, Suzuoki noted:
“Deep down, the South Koreans have a fundamental desire to obtain ‘the Korean people’s nuclear weapons.’ In fact, when North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006, all of Seoul was enveloped in a strange excitement. As the nuclear test occurred right in the middle of a fierce North-South confrontation, we foreigners had expected Seoul’s citizens to exercise vigilance. To the contrary, South Koreans from the president down to taxi drivers were overjoyed. Because the North’s nuclear test meant the ‘Korean race’ had finally acquired their own nuke.”
It was probably taken for granted that the South’s leftwing forces would embrace the North’s first nuclear bomb as equal to their own, given that even those within the conservative camp welcomed the North’s nuke as “the nuclear bomb of the Korean race.” There reportedly were some who even imagined how wonderful it would be if the North’s nukes could be installed aboard nuclear submarines the South would be building.
Allow me to hasten to add that in the South, conservatives and liberals have clashed against each other bitterly, with public opinion split in half. Naturally, there are those who exercise stern vigilance in opposition to those who admire the North’s nuclear capability. Approximately a half year ago, on November 15, 2022 to be specific, Choi Yoon-hi, former Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, had this to say about the inter-Korean conflict:
1) The ongoing close encounter with the North reflects the South’s tactics aimed at preventing Pyongyang’s seventh nuclear test; 2) As soon as the North secures tactical nuclear weapons, it will utilize them ruthlessly to threaten and provoke not only the South but its neighbors; 3) The South should acquire a card it can manipulate according to its unique ability and will, in addition to the diversified deterrence it would share with the US; and 4) The South’s most trustworthy deterrence would be strategic nuclear submarines.
History of Siding with Strongest Neighbor
Pointing out that the North started constructing submarines in the 1960s way ahead of the South and that the South’s efforts to secure its own subs failed due to objections from Washington, Choi noted that the North possessed more than 70 submarines. He warned that they should not be underestimated, no matter how primitive and rudimentary they might seem. Observing that the North announced the start of its nuclear submarine development in 2021, Choi predicted it will achieve its objective within a decade. Choi emphasized the need for the South to expeditiously acquire its own nuclear submarines in order to effectively address the North’s nuclear threat.
The South is split between the conservative forces spurred by an unfaltering belief in enhancing its national defense and their liberal counterparts, who ardently support the North and China. As for President Yoon, it is difficult to figure out his true colors at this juncture.
When then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Seoul after her stay in Taiwan last August, Yoon did not bother to meet her and instead only had a phone conversation, despite the fact that he was actually in the South Korean capital. Drilled by CNN over what action South Korea would take should China attack Taiwan, Yoon replied that Seoul would deal with the North’s provocations—a blatant admission that South Korea could not be counted on to as an ally in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Following the talks with Biden in Washington, however, Yoon switched his policy and declared that a change of the existing order in the Strait of Taiwan by force is unacceptable, finally criticizing China, whom he had been afraid of rubbing the wrong way. As regards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yoon also declared South Korea would aid Ukraine militarily.
My view of Korean history is that the Koreans have consistently sided with their strongest neighbor. Even now, South Korea appears to be weighing the US and China against each other in a desperate effort to figure out which side to eventually align itself with. I may be too harsh on South Korea, but wish to point out that if a nation lacks solid democratic values and principles it can swiftly change itself, depending on the situation. This posture, I feel, reflects the innate survival strategy of the Korean people—a way of life that makes perfect sense to Koreans. Cautiously bracing ourselves for the day the South Koreans possesses their own nuclear weapons, we Japanese would do well to make efforts to improve ties with them while also scrutinizing how to cope with a nuclear-armed neighbor. It would be unwise to trust South Korea wholeheartedly at this stage, but Japan should respond positively to Yoon’s constructive posture as necessary for our national interests while watching developments calmly going forward.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,048 in the May 18, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)