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Nervous South Koreans seek ways to counter North’s nuclear threat

Ahead of his inauguration as South Korea’s president on Tuesday, Yoon Suk-yeol promised he would “dramatically strengthen” his nation’s defences towards the quickly growing nuclear forces of North Korea.

The conservative president-elect’s marketing campaign pledge highlighted intensifying debate in South Korea over whether or not to push for a return of US nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula — and even whether or not Seoul ought to search to develop its personal nuclear deterrent.

Pyongyang has carried out a flurry of ballistic missile checks since September and the US has warned North Korea might conduct its first nuclear check since 2017 this month. South Korean officers have additionally been spooked by Russia’s use of nuclear threats to discourage western intervention in Ukraine.

“The big thing that has changed is what Russia has done in Ukraine,” mentioned Karl Friedhoff, a Korea professional on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“The Korean security establishment never quite took the possibility of North Korean nuclear coercion entirely seriously, but seeing how Russia has been able to threaten potential nuclear use from the very beginning of the war has opened people’s eyes,” Friedhoff mentioned.

South Korea’s technique for utilizing its typical navy to discourage Pyongyang depends on capabilities it calls the “Three Ks”. These are pre-emptive missile strikes, dubbed “Kill Chain”, to take out launch websites if a nuclear assault is judged imminent, with “Korea Air and Missile Defence” to destroy incoming projectiles and “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation” to hit again at Pyongyang.

South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a ceremony last week
© YNA/dpa

Under outgoing president Moon Jae-in, Seoul invested closely in fighter plane, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and navy spy satellites. South Korea can also be growing its personal missile defence system modelled on Israel’s Iron Dome.

But analysts mentioned South Korea’s potential to depend on its typical navy superiority to discourage assaults was being eroded, rising its reliance on the nuclear umbrella supplied by the US, Seoul’s closest safety ally.

“North Korea’s development of solid-fuel missiles that can be fired at a moment’s notice undermines the Kill Chain, its manoeuvrable missiles challenge South Korea’s missile defences, while the threat of potential early nuclear use poses a threat to the whole package,” mentioned S Paul Choi, founding father of Seoul-based political danger advisory StratWays Group.

“Korean security officials have long been uncomfortable about this, but the problem is getting more acute, leading more people to question our reliance on America’s extended deterrent,” Choi mentioned.

The US eliminated all its nuclear warheads from South Korea in 1991, however Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant normal and former commander of the South Korean particular forces, mentioned US tactical nuclear weapons must be deployed to the peninsula in response to the risk posed by these of North Korea.

At a navy parade final month, North Korean chief Kim Jong Un signalled his willingness to have interaction in nuclear coercion in defence of his nation’s “fundamental interests”, declaring that his nuclear arsenal had a “secondary mission” that went past that of stopping conflict.

Chun mentioned tactical nuclear forces must be stationed in South Korea that would “deliver a response within 1-3 minutes, not 45 minutes or a couple of hours”.

“It is only when both sides place each other in such a dangerous situation that they will think about getting rid of such weapons,” he mentioned. “It’s cold war logic, but that’s where we are right now. The North Koreans are just not taking us seriously.”

Jeongmin Kim, lead analyst at Seoul-based data service Korea Pro, mentioned many members of the incoming Yoon administration shared Chun’s need to see US nuclear weapons deployed on South Korean territory.

“The Korean conservatives have signalled not only that they want more nuclear assets made available to defend the Korean peninsula, but that they want greater assurances as to how the US might respond in an emergency situation,” mentioned Kim. “They want to have more of a say, and they want to have greater understanding of US thinking on nuclear use.”

She added Yoon can be extra prepared to challenge energy than his progressive predecessor, whose hopes of securing his political legacy as a peacemaker had been dashed by North Korean intransigence.

“The difference between the two administrations will be one of tone, rather than actual military readiness,” mentioned Kim. “Whereas Moon Jae-in used to prioritise dialogue and tension management, Yoon will prioritise signalling to South Korean citizens that their deterrence is effective.”

Some analysts warned a extra confrontational line may very well be counter-productive.

“Doubling down on deterrence, economic isolation and the threat of military force will only deepen instability on the peninsula at a time when North Korea is ratcheting up tension,” mentioned Jessica Lee, a fellow on the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington.

Recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs advised persevering with public help in South Korea for the nation to amass its personal nuclear weapons, with 71 per cent of these surveyed in favour.

Christopher Green, senior marketing consultant for the International Crisis Group, mentioned that simply as North Korea began growing nuclear weapons within the late Seventies in response to perceived navy vulnerability, South Korea may very well be reaching the conclusion it wanted its personal nuclear forces.

“The US has an awful lot of leverage by which to restrain South Korean ambitions in that regard,” mentioned Green. “Washington could theoretically acquiesce if it saw North Korea as otherwise undeterrable, but I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.”

But Chun mentioned Seoul mustn’t assume it is going to be capable of depend on the exterior ensures of a distant US perpetually.

“Either American extended nuclear deterrence is formidable and credible, or South Korea acquires its own nuclear weapons,” Chun mentioned. “I have never doubted an American soldier. But I would be foolish to place my nation’s security in the hands of an American politician.”

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