I just published an essay in Global Asia magazine with Toby Dalton at the Carnegie Endowment. It’s the kind of policy pundit stuff I used to do all the time but do far less often these days (because it’s a mode of writing that allows for only very narrow forms of critique and rescue of policy).
The gist: South Korean nukes would be bad, but also the positive argument for them is somewhere between very weak and totally absent.
The context: South Korean policy elites arguing for developing their own nuclear weapons is not a new thing.
When I worked in the Pentagon (2009-14), there was an outcry from elite conservatives in South Korea for nukes. Popular? Meh, it ebbed and flowed depending on how surveys worded questions and what was going on with North Korea. Bipartisan? Not really. And the current obsession in South Korea with nukes is mostly manufactured.
How do we know that? Well, the talking points I’m hearing now from Seoul are the same arguments that were being made 10-12 years ago. I mean verbatim. And people seem to have conveniently forgotten that President Yoon’s foreign policy team came in talking about nukes as a priority from the outset. Kind of like the South Korean version of the Project for a New American Century—North Korea hasn’t changed, only the South Korean government’s attitude toward North Korea has changed.
Anyway, Toby is very good on this issue and we both agree that South Korean nukes are a very bad idea, so we teamed up to make our case. Basically, we’ve yet to see a reasonable strategic argument. Throwing around “deterrence” and “credibility” and US “abandonment”—it’s just words. They’re not being assembled into logics or causal wagers. As with AUKUS in Australia, the motivation for the policy is clear; the justification is missing. And that’s disturbing because we think nukes will make South Korea substantially less secure.
But aside from sharing that piece with newsletter subscribers, I wanted to discuss where I think the US Democratic Party is on all this.