The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Nuclear proliferation and the US national interest

By Korea Herald

Published : May 16, 2024 - 05:29

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It is shocking to see the claims raised by former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby in recent interviews with Korean media. In particular, the argument that South Korea should consider its nuclear armament is very disappointing. Although such claims have been made intermittently, this time is uncomfortable and scary because he is known to be one of the best elites in the United States who studied at Harvard College and Yale University, and one of the strong candidates for a national security adviser if former President Donald Trump wins the US presidential election in November. At first glance, his argument seems logical. However, ultimately, it is only a wrong choice that will incur huge costs and serious losses to all parties involved in peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, including the US.

Korea's nuclear armament will destroy the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) system, which would cause a devastating blow to the national interests of the US and South Korea. The NPT is a vital means for the US, the only hegemonic power since the end of the Cold War in 1991, to maintain global hegemony. If the system collapsed, the number of countries with nuclear weapons could exceed 30 nations. A country with nuclear weapons is a potential competitor against the leadership of the US If atomic weapons are proliferated, there is a high probability that the US will lose its status as a hegemonic power. If the US fails to maintain its hegemonic position, the international order will shift to a multipolar system. The various international norms that the US has established for many decades to serve its interests in security and commerce will be altered in a way that shares interests with other powers.

Mr. Colby also claimed that the NPT system failed. This argument might be valid, but partially. The assessment should be different if we compare before and after the introduction of the NPT in 1968. More than 15 nations have or have attempted to possess nuclear weapons in the international community in the 1960s if there were no NPT. Many other countries, including Sweden, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Iraq, South Korea, and North Korea, might have had nuclear weapons around 1980 without the NPT. What about now? We have five or nine nations that have nuclear weapons, legally or illegally. It would be fair for positive assessments to be greater than negative ones, considering that about 30 countries with nuclear weapons were reduced to five or nine.

Mr. Colby argued that the extended deterrence the United States has pledged to South Korea is unreliable. Extended deterrence for South Korea is a program in which the US will punish North Korea by using all military means, including nuclear weapons, in the event of the North attacking the South. However, he predicted that the US would not sacrifice the American cities for South Korea because North Korea could destroy the cities with long-range nuclear missiles. At first glance, this argument appears to be reasonable, too. However, extended deterrence is a highly sophisticated measure that seeks reasonable costs with diplomacy in mind rather than simply calculating national defense issues with military power alone. Considering the likelihood and conditions for North Korea to use nuclear weapons, as well as the economic, political, and diplomatic costs required for South Korea to possess them, extended deterrence has been developed as the most appropriate option.

The claim that the US Forces in Korea's mission should include China's threat response is also self-inflicting. If the USFK responds to Chinese military threats, China will also recognize the South Korean military, which has a combined command system with the USFK as an enemy. South Korea cannot get help from China in dealing with the North Korean issues if South Korea and China officially accept hostile relations. This is unacceptable to South Korea, as it is the worst-case scenario in its security policy.

It isn't easy to understand that some experts in the US suggest ways to self-damage the US national interests, like stabbing themselves in the eyes. It may result from the polarization of the US domestic political atmosphere and the partisan approach, resulting in a severe flaw in the overall perception of the international order. It seems that they have forgotten that the global community has maintained a unipolar order with the US as a single hegemonic power since the end of the Cold War, as they focus on a faithful attitude toward the camp's logic. Still, China has been challenging the US-led international order since 2008, and Russia is also challenging the US-led global order by joining forces with China and others. This could be partly true, but it is wrong overall. Russia rejects the US-led international order and opposes it head-on. Still, Russia has failed to create another meaningful world that confronts the United States and exists merely as one of the rogue states. China is growing its size as a potential challenger while expressing dissatisfaction with the United States, but it still follows the US-led security and trade order. If so, the strategy of isolating, rejecting, and antagonizing China may not be appropriate. Instead, it is adequate to pressure and persuade China to obey the US-led order. There is still a chance for the two giants to live together peacefully.

I hope that the US elites will accurately understand the characteristics of the international order with the US in the center and promote foreign and security policies in a way that helps the US national interest and does not cause damage to the US interests and inconveniences to all countries. Otherwise, the scenario in which South Korea, North Korea, China and the US are swept away by a war that they do not want and are sucked into the path of national extinction rather than national development will prevail.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.