As the United States struggles to cope with the North Korean atomic challenge,there is a growing sentiment in South Korea in favour of building nuclear weapons. In a public opinion poll conducted after the third North Korean nuclear test in February,nearly two-thirds of South Koreans supported the development of a national nuclear arsenal.
Debating the nuclear weapon option has long been taboo in South Korea. That taboo is breaking down amidst Pyongyangs adventurism and the growing pessimism in Seoul about the USs ability to rollback North Koreas nuclear weapons programme.
As one of the worlds leading economies with an advanced industrial base,South Korea has long had the wherewithal to quickly mount a significant nuclear weapons programme. What held it back until now is a political decision to forego the nuclear weapon option.
Seoul did pursue the nuclear weapon option in the 1970s,but the US persuaded South Korea to abandon the programme. South Korea was encouraged instead to rely on the US nuclear shield.
Faith in the US nuclear umbrella allowed South Korea to take a stoic view of the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes,until recently. But Seouls patience has begun to snap in the last two years amidst the intolerable provocations from the North.
Making matters worse was the growing South Korean perception that a weakening America may no longer have the ability to either rein in North Korea or defend Seoul against Pyongyangs nuclear arsenal.
Some in Seoul call for strengthening the American nuclear umbrella by the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. The US had withdrawn the tactical weapons from South Korea after the end of the Cold War in 1991 in a gesture of reconciliation towards North Korea. Others insist South Korea has no alternative but to acquire nuclear parity with the North.
In Washington,of course,there is little
political appetite for a prospective South Korean nuclear weapons programme. American policy is committed to keeping the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
The problem,however,is that the US finds itself unable to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons while continuing to restrain its longstanding ally South Korea from matching the atomic arsenal of the North.
While South Korea may be some distance away from exercising its nuclear weapon option,Seoul is demanding that the US allow it to beef up its civilian nuclear infrastructure. Washington is squirming at that too.
South Korea wants to produce enriched uranium and plutonium to fuel its expansive civil nuclear programme and make it more efficient. The current US policy bars countries that dont have these facilities from acquiring them,on the grounds that these technologies make it easier to build nuclear weapons.
When South Korean President Park Geun-hye visits Washington next month,she is expected to press Barack Obama to let Seoul strengthen its nuclear prowess. The non-proliferation community in Washington is dead set against the liberalisation of the policy in favour of South Korea.
While Washington wrings its hands on the nuclear question,it has made one important concession to Seoul last year that lets South Korea match the North Korean missile programme.
In an agreement with Washington in 2001,Seoul agreed not to develop or deploy ballistic missiles with a range of more than 300 km and a payload of more than 500 kg. These restrictions were in line with the rules of the Missile Technology Control Regime and meant to reduce the dangers of missile proliferation in the Korean Peninsula.
South Koreas self-restraint made no difference to the North,which has steadily advanced towards developing longer range missiles. Under a new agreement announced last October,Washington has agreed that South Korea can build missiles with ranges up to 800 km. Seoul will also be free to develop missiles with ranges shorter than 800 km that can carry heavier warheads than 500 kg.
Once Seoul develops the new ballistic missiles in the coming years,it will have the capacity to target all of North Korea. The US justified the decision by saying that allowing South Korea to develop longer range missiles was a proportionate response to the threats.
As Pyongyang rattles the nuclear sabre,the tension between the deepening political crisis in the Korean Peninsula and the non-proliferation regime has become increasingly difficult to manage.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express