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…despite the fact that South Korea remains fully committed to a non-nuclear posture as a member of the NPT and as a signatory to the CTBT and related non-proliferation regimes such as the MTCR, North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear capabilities has triggered a domestic debate on whether Seoul should also seriously entertain the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, develop its own nuclear deterrent, or at the very least, declare its intent of considering such an option until such time that a CVID policy (the complete, verifiable, irreversible, and dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities) vis-à-vis North Korea bears tangible results.
To be sure, the Park Administration has continued to pledge and stress Seoul’s non-nuclear principles and even the broader national security community stands behind South Korea’s non-nuclear posture. Any deviation from Seoul’s non-nuclear stance will not only result in irreparable damage to its critical alliance with the United States, it could also trigger a Northeast Asian nuclear domino. More importantly, if South Korea contemplates its own nuclear option, there is little doubt that China and Russia will also recalibrate their own nuclear postures so that Seoul would be forced to compete with its much more powerful neighbors with both conventional and nuclear forces- at a time when it is only spending 2.7% of its GDP on defense with growing demands for sharp increases in social welfare spending. Thus, from virtually all angles, the opportunity costs far outweigh any strategic leverage Seoul could gain from its own indigenous nuclear deterrent.
Yet the fundamental challenge of addressing the growing strategic asymmetry on the Korean Peninsula persists. Even with the highest degree of assurances from the United States, doubts will remain on the resilience of America’s extended deterrence and the extent of U.S. support for South Korea’s ability to field more robust defense assets. At the same time, ensuring a more “equal” alliance is a theme that continues to resonate in the Seoul-Washington relationship and narrowing this perception gap is one of the major goals that President Park has to work towards, especially as she prepares for her first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in early May.
In this context, one of President Park’s first major diplomatic hurdles lies in her ability to successfully renegotiate the 40-year old U.S.-South Korea Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement that expires in March 2014. Recently, Seoul and Washington agreed to extend the agreement by two years since on-going negotiations were not able to breach the gap. For most South Koreans, the earlier nuclear cooperation accord is a vestige of a period when South Korea was not only a very junior partner of the United States but also a time where Seoul’s economic and energy needs were incomparably different back in 1973. South Korea stresses the need for acquiring spent fuel reprocessing and uranium enrichment capabilities to meet the growing demand for civilian nuclear energy while the United States emphasizes the critical importance of nuclear non-proliferation.
Bridging this divide is going to require unprecedented negotiating skills and political acumen. If an agreement is reached that continues to close the door on alternatives such as pyro-processing, and Washington pressures Seoul to accept an “unequal agreement,” the South Korean public and the political community on both sides of the aisle will perceive such an accord as another example of America’s continued double-standards given that it gave exemptions to India and Japan. Moreover, for South Korea, as one of the United States’ closest, most important, and dependable allies in Asia, such a turn of events will be seen as a major reversal for its desire and need for a more self-reliant energy posture. In addition, failure to secure a politically acceptable agreement will be seen as a severe setback for South Korean foreign policy and the Park Administration’s alliance management capabilities.
If renegotiating the 1-2-3 agreement is a central litmus test for the ROK-U.S. alliance, other major hurdles such as successfully negotiating the on-going round of defense cost sharing responsibilities, the reversion of wartime operational control to South Korea currently slated for December 2015, the ability of the ROK to progressively increase its defense budget in the face of North Korea’s on-going WMD buildup, China’s increasingly robust military footprints in Northeast Asia, and the need to upgrade South Korea’s network-centric war-fighting capabilities have to be overcome. Originally conceived by the Roh Moo Hyun Administration (2003-2008) as an expression of South Korea’s growing desire for a more independent defense posture, the OPCON transfer timetable was postponed by the Lee Myung-bak Administration (2008-2013) in order to enable the ROK forces to upgrade key capabilities while formulating a new command architecture that would ensure unchanged jointness between the U.S. and South Korean forces. While the Park Administration has stated its willingness to proceed with OPCON transfer, it will do so only after completing a comprehensive mid-term review. In the interim, South Korea has to enhance its strategic intelligence, C4ISR, and war-fighting capabilities all at a time of stagnant economic growth and growing political pressure to increase social-welfare rather than defense spending."
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