S. Korean nukes? Why not, says Obama official

Monday, March 11, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL Suddenly, the notion of South Korea going nuclear has re-entered mainstream political discourse.

In the early 1970s late president Park Chung-Hee dreamed of South Korea joining the global nuclear club. The United States frustrated that idea, however, by getting South Korea to go along with a nuclear cooperation agreement that banned reprocessing spent fuel rods.

As a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), South Korea has not exactly been plotting ways to develop their own nuclear warheads. They do, after all, have the American "nuclear umbrella," and then there's the North-South Korean denuclearization agreement, under which the North and South did agree on totally denuclearizing the Koran Peninsula.

Like the genie in a bottle, however, the nuclear dream is recurring while conservative South Koreans, convinced North Korea will never give up its nukes, say they have to have them too. You don't hear South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-Bak, talking about it, but conservatives are staging conferences and talking out in the National Assembly, while voices in the South Korean media are picking up on the idea.

They began talking more loudly, with more confidence than ever, after a White House official, almost inadvertently, certainly in an unguarded moment, got himself quoted by JoongAng Ilbo, a leading newspaper here, as saying, in effect, sure, if South Korea wanted some tactical nukes, the White House would be glad to help.

All South Korea had to do was ask, said Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, caught by a JoongAng Ilbo reporter during a seminar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and the answer was sure to be "yes."

The venue for his remark was embarrassing since the dean of Fletcher is Stephen Bosworth, who moonlights as U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy. Bosworth around the same time was in Washington talking about the possibility of extending aid for North Korea's starving people if only the North would show signs of living up to previous deals for giving up its nukes.

Samore's remarks touched off such a storm here, and inspired such denials and explanations and circumlocutions from U.S. and South Korean officialdom, that it's a safe bet he's going to be very careful before saying any such thing again. He's not, however, saying he was misquoted or talking off the record or misunderstood. Basically, the word is, "Samore, say no more," while diplomats and spokespeople do the talking.

Samore could not have picked a better or maybe worse time to talk. By complete coincidence, apparently, one of the U.S. State Department's more clever negotiators was right here in Seoul not to negotiate a deal for deploying tactical nukes but to begin to come to terms with South Korea on renewing the nuclear cooperation agreement when it expires three year hence.

For Robert Einhorn, whose title is "special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control," the need to disavow Samore's comment was a distraction that he had no problem shaking off by telling reporters the U.S. had "no plan to deploy U.S. tactical or other nuclear weapons in South Korea." South Korea, he said, doesn't "need them."

Einhorn is having a more difficult time talking South Korean negotiators out of a plan for pyroprocessing, seen as "a long-term solution" for recycling spent fuel rods without producing weapons-grade plutonium. Pyroprocessing, say the South Koreans, cannot compare with normal reprocessing, is economic, has the requisite safeguard ability though takes another 10 or 20 years before it's ready for commercial use.

South Korea is having trouble, however, convincing everyone that pyroprocessing is not a step on the way to reprocessing fuel rods for warheads. At the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, physicists were discovered to have enriched tiny amounts of uranium in 2000 without even notifying their own government. The International Atomic Energy Agency in 2004 scolded South Korea for not reporting the experiments but concluded they had stopped.

The South Korean argument becomes less convincing considering how strongly some conservatives are demanding South Korea become a nuclear-weapons power.

"It's absurd that South Korea and the United States should bind themselves to the principle of denuclearization," said the English-language Korea Herald, "while the North has conducted nuclear test twice and threatens the South with nuclear holocaust on almost a daily basis."

The paper came out with a neat way to circumvent the letter of the NPT. President Barack Obama would not find deployment of U.S. nukes in South Korea to be "contradictory to his global non-proliferation commitment", the paper rationalized, "as redeployed tactical weapons would be withdrawn upon the settlement of denuclearization negotiations."

The reference was to negotiations on any level, in North-South dialogue or in six-nation talks chaired by China with participation by all the other major powers engaged in the perpetual tug of war for the Korean Peninsula, the U.S., Russia and Japan as well as the two Koreas. One can only imagine the ruckus that a redeployment of U.S. nukes withdrawn well before the signing of the 1991 denuclearization agreement would raise at the negotiating table.

Among the pro-nuke advocates is Chung Mong-Joon, one of South Korea's richest billionaires thanks to the inheritance from his father, Hyundai empire founder Chung Ju-Yung, of a controlling stake in Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world's biggest manufacturer of commercial vessels.

Chung, a member of the National Assembly from the ruling Grand National Party, doubts if the mere existence of a nuclear umbrella would "make the North give up its nuclear weapons." Therefore, he reasoned: "We must consider redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons."

Such remarks fuel the ongoing debate over whether South Korea should have its own nuclear stockpile. "Voices for nuclear weapons in South Korea are getting louder and louder," said Yoo Se-Hee, chairman of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. "The U.S. and China haven't been able to solve this problem."

Yoo said, however, that "it's rather premature to accept that argument" that South Korea should have its own nuclear weapons. Rather, he said, "the U.S. and China should press further for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons" lest "the nuclear arguments of South Korea will get a bigger voice".

"Many people say we must have nuclear weapons," said Choi Young-Jae, policy commissioner of the National Unification Advisory Council, another non-governmental organization, "but I think that issue is not so easy."

Japan and Taiwan might also become nuclear-weapon powers, Choi observed, while many countries, including strong ally America would strongly object. At the same time, he said, it would likely provoke unrest by South Korean liberals and leftists, already deeply critical of the country's conservative government.

The chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, Sohn Hak-Hyu, hinted at that possibility, warning it was "inappropriate for the government and ruling party to create a crisis on the Korean Peninsula by talking about the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons at this sensitive time."

Lee appears to agree for now, stressing in one speech "the need to realize reunification."

On the same day, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin urged a variation of the theme, shoot first and ask questions later. Small unit commanders, he said, should tell their troops to return fire when necessary without asking permission from higher headquarters. Presumably he wasn't talking about opening fire with a tactical nuke.

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