Hillary Feeds South Korean Conservatives

14 Jun

Jungmin Kang has a good summary of the South Korean conservatives’ reaction both to DPRK’s second nuclear test on May 25 and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s agreement with ROK Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan to extend America’s nuclear deterrence to ROK.

But just a day after Pyongyang’s second nuclear test, current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced that Seoul would fully participate in the PSI. (South Korea had been participating in the PSI only as an observer since 2005.) In response, North Korea warned that any stoppage and/or search of a North Korean ship would be a declaration of war. Further, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to U.S. “extended nuclear deterrence” against a North Korean nuclear attack on South Korea, according to recent South Korean news accounts.

One reason for Washington extending its nuclear deterrent to South Korea is to reduce Seoul’s motivation to pursue a nuclear capability of its own. However, it also will justify North Korea’s rationale for strengthening its nuclear capabilities.

And regardless of U.S. assurances, it seems some South Korean politicians are so fed up with North Korea’s never-ending threats toward the South that they are having serious discussions about Seoul’s “nuclear sovereignty.”

Nuclear sovereignty is interpreted in two ways in South Korea. Conservative politicians, nongovernmental organizations, and some of the public think it means that South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons to defend against the North. (The domestic criticism of this stance: That such an action could result in international sanctions against South Korea and a nuclear arms race in the region.) The other interpretation is that Seoul should develop capabilities to produce nuclear weapon materials by building nuclear fuel cycle facilities, including uranium enrichment and reprocessing.

After the test, politicians and the media (conservative and liberal alike) have begun actively insisting that South Korea should, like Japan, pursue a reprocessing capability to reduce the burden of the country’s spent fuel and a uranium enrichment capability to reduce its dependence on foreign enrichment services. Japan already has such facilities, which are widely viewed as providing it with a virtual nuclear deterrent.

As such, legislators are starting to complain that the current U.S.-South Korean agreement on the civilian use of nuclear energy, which prevents Seoul from reprocessing and will expire in 2014, should be renewed to allow South Korea the same rights as Japan. They also argue that since North Korea has violated the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in which both countries agreed not to possess reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities, South Korea need not comply either. Further, Seoul has scheduled its first ever space rocket launch for late July, perhaps to offset Pyongyang’s missile threat. What the South Korean government needs to realize, though, is that such actions only further destabilize the region.

Along with conservatives’ calls for delaying transfer of wartime control of Combined Forces Korea to Seoul this is a setback for nuclear non-proliferation and rolling back America’s commitments in Northeast Asia, and could be a harbinger of tensions between all of the regional powers, including Japan and PRC.

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