[Column] The nuclear umbrella and the afterlife

Posted on : 2024-03-26 17:09 KST Modified on : 2024-03-26 17:09 KST
We can’t just die because we’re curious about the afterlife, and we can’t just go to war to find out whether extended deterrence works
President Yoon Suk-yeol gives a speech at the Seoul Airport in Seongnam on Sept. 26, 2023, to mark Armed Forces Day. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol gives a speech at the Seoul Airport in Seongnam on Sept. 26, 2023, to mark Armed Forces Day. (presidential office pool photo)

Is there life after death? It’s a question the living cannot know, and the dead cannot answer.

The only way to find out is to die, and even then, the living are left ignorant about whether the dead have ended up in an afterlife.

The reason I bring up this point is because of its similarity to the concept of “extended deterrence.”

Extended deterrence amounts to the following threat: Hit my friend, and I’ll hit you back. The object is to prevent hostile forces from attacking friendly countries.

The typical threat is to retaliate using nuclear weapons, which are seen as the ultimate weapon.

The relationship between the South Korea-US alliance and North Korea serves as a good illustration of the concept.

The US is the world’s preeminent nuclear power, South Korea is a non-nuclear-weapon state, and North Korea has a nuclear arsenal. So the US warns that if North Korea launches a nuclear attack on South Korea, the US will retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own. That threat is designed both to deter North Korea from carrying out such an attack and to reassure South Korea, which is an American ally.

That raises the question of whether such extended deterrence actually works. Obviously, it works, at least under normal circumstances. Neither North Korea nor any other country is currently launching a nuclear strike on South Korea.

But what about in wartime? If war broke out and North Korea lobbed nukes at South Korea, would the US carry out a nuclear strike on the North?

One can’t be 100% certain the US would do so. The only way to know for certain is to have a war, but that would be a betrayal of deterrence.

The object of ordinary deterrence is preventing war, and the object of the nuclear umbrella, which is the best-known form of extended deterrence, is preventing nuclear war. Therefore, for nuclear weapons to be used in a hot war would signify the failure of deterrence itself.

We can’t just die because we’re curious about the afterlife, and we can’t just go to war to find out whether extended deterrence works in an emergency, can we?

So when it comes to deterrence against the North, we need to draw a distinction between “abilities” and “feelings.”

In terms of abilities, South Korea and the US (plus Japan) present a massive deterrent against the North. The US, a South Korean ally that has declared it will provide extended deterrence, boasts the world’s strongest military capabilities. South Korea has also bolstered itself to become one of the world’s top five military powers as of this year, thanks to massive investments in defense spending.

Meanwhile, Japan has embarked on a full-scale acquisition of offensive weapons as it speeds up its rearmament. There are also over 10 UN Command member nations that are taking part in joint South Korea-US exercises and have said they will supply firepower in the event of an emergency on the peninsula.

The joint exercises in which these countries participate both directly and indirectly are the world’s largest in scale by far. The deterrent against North Korea isn’t just sufficient — it’s almost excessive.

Even so, there are still many who grumble that the deterrent is inadequate. It isn’t because the actual capabilities are lacking — it’s just how they perceive things.

The main reason for that is that they don’t believe the US’ pledge of extended deterrence can be relied on 100%. A symbolic illustration of that is the question many of them ask: “Would the US sacrifice Washington to save Seoul?”

In other words, they doubt that the US would actually implement its extended deterrence against a North Korea equipped with nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of transporting them.

But the question itself is getting far ahead of things. Before we’ve even had a chance to find out whether the US keeps its pledge, the Republic of Korea will have already suffered considerable damage.

At this point, we should be asking ourselves whether it really benefits us to succumb to constant feelings of inadequacy when there is already an ample deterrent against the North. Obviously, it does not.

To begin with, as we bolster our military capabilities and posture against the North to assuage those feelings, North Korea will just work harder to advance its nuclear capabilities, given its inferior position vis-à-vis the South Korea-US alliance.

As the arms race and security dilemma get caught up in a vicious cycle, the thread holding up the nuclear sword of Damocles starts to quiver and fray. In other words, actions meant to deter war can actually end up fueling the threat of war.

Not only that, but when South Korea fixates on strengthening the already massive extended deterrence that the US provides, it becomes harder and harder to stand up to Washington when the price it demands becomes excessive.

Beyond the recently launched negotiations on our respective shares of defense costs, it even becomes difficult to speak up against self-serving US demands regarding other economic issues, such as those relating to semiconductors.

For this reason, some have advocated for South Korea’s independent nuclear armament, and many have agreed with them. But even when we set aside questions of how realistic and feasible such an approach would be, it is important that we understand how South Korea’s dependency on the US ironically becomes magnified the moment we decide to arm ourselves with nuclear weapons.

Enabling nuclear armament would require the consent of the US, and the amendment of the South Korea-US Atomic Energy Agreement in particular. The determinations of the US would also assume major importance in terms of whether South Korea would be subject to economic sanctions.

It would take around ten years at least for South Korea to establish nuclear capabilities on par with the North’s. During that time, the crisis on the peninsula would escalate, which would only leave South Korea with a greater need for USFK and US extended deterrence. Could South Korea realistically say no to any unfair demands the US might make under these circumstances?

As inter-Korean relations and the political situation on the peninsula undergo major shifts today, it has become more and more urgent for us to let go of our overblown delusions of “victimhood” against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and our sense of inadequacy in terms of a deterrent. Only then does it become possible for us to really understand our adversary.

As we refrain from showing off the emergency capabilities we do in fact possess, we may come to understand that diplomacy represents another path to preserving peace and security.

By Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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