NBC Weapons: South Korea Goes Nuclear


December 17, 2023: South Korea is again considering developing and manufacturing its own nuclear weapons. The cause is the growing instability of North Korea and South Korean fears that the United States won’t fulfill its pledge to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons if the North attacks South Korea with nukes.

South Korea currently sees North Korea as less stable and more prone to reckless actions against the south. This change in attitudes came after November 2023 when South Korea canceled a 2018 agreement with North Korea to reduce the surveillance and spying they carried out against each other. South Korea took a closer look at North Korean military activities and concluded that North Korea might be tempted to emulate the recent Hamas attack on Israel and back it with the threat of using nuclear weapons. This is a dangerous form of diplomacy, and it is unclear if North Korea was contemplating such a thing. Now North Korea is temporarily prospering by selling weapons and munitions to Russia in return for cash and much-needed food. This is good news for the North Korean government, which until last year was facing more popular unrest due to poor economic conditions and not enough food. Last year Russia sought to buy weapons and munitions from North Korea to supply their troops in Ukraine. More orders followed and soon this was visible on satellite photos of increased activity on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

It is unclear if North Korea was planning to risk its newly acquired prosperity with an attack on South Korea. Yet this is what South Korea feared and that’s why they canceled the 2018 treaty and resumed surveillance of North Korean military activities. All they could see was increased activity in weapons and munitions factories with most of that production being shipped to Russia. Since 2019, South Korea has not been able to get the North to negotiate about anything.

Not all the new weapons production is sent to Russia. North Korea has kept its ballistic missile production going and tests more of them with launches into the waters between Korea and Japan. This frightens the Japanese, who note that most of these missiles seem to work and are not fired at their maximum ranges. While North Korea is pleased with this, Japan is also acquiring more BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) systems. Japan has recently increased its annual defense spending 26 percent. Now the Japanese are spending $52 billion a year, which is about 1.4 percent of GDP and the largest Japanese defense budget ever. It is also the sixth year that Japan increased defense spending and the goal is to eventually reach two percent of GDP. Japan and South Korea are now spending about the same amount on defense and are both in the top ten defense spenders in the world. The others are the United States, China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Germany and France. South Korea is number nine, spending a little more than Japan at number ten.

Militarily, South Korea is a superpower compared to North Korea. This is obvious when you consider annual defense spending. While the United States accounts for about 40 percent of worldwide defense spending, China and Russia together only account for about 17 percent. The rest of the top ten are either allies of the Americans or friendly. Ukraine is, in terms of total defense spending that includes donations from NATO countries, figuratively in the top five when it comes to defense acquisitions. This is a dubious distinction for Ukraine, which is using it all to repel a Russian invasion. South Korea has profited from this because NATO nations bordering Ukraine or Russia have increased defense spending and purchased nearly $15 billion worth of South Korea weapons and munitions. South Korea produces a lot more military gear than the north and the southern weapons and munitions are top grade. One side effect is that once Poland receives all the South Korean tanks, mobile artillery, and rocket (guided and unguided) launchers from South Korea, they will have the most powerful army in NATO Europe. This is to discourage any Russian attacks on Poland or any other NATO nation in the area.

South Korea fears that their more numerous and effective weapons and munitions are not having the desired effect on North Korea. Since the 1990s South Korea has become an economic powerhouse and one of the top ten economies in the world. Because of that South Korea has more friends and trading partners in East Asia than Russia does. South Korea has the wealth and technical skill to build nuclear weapons and reliable ones at that. Russia believes that offending South Korea is a bad idea while disappointing North Korea creates no new problems.

Then there are the earlier South Korea efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the Korean peninsula. The Americans have already taken the lead in this. In 1991 the United States withdrew all its nuclear warheads from South Korea and managed to get the two Koreas to agree not to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. This included both Koreas signing the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). North Korea went ahead and developed nuclear weapons anyway, even though it was obvious that South Korea could do the same and produce more reliable nuclear warheads and more effective submarines to launch them from. When North Korea violated the agreement, South Korea went ahead and produced SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles) with conventional warheads launched from South Korean designed and built submarines.

Since 2014 South Korea has been building nine 3,300-ton KSS-III submarines, each able to carry six or ten locally developed SLBM ballistic or cruise missiles with a range of up to 3,000 kilometers. These missiles can carry nuclear warheads instead of the high-explosive ones they currently have. Two of these subs are in service with another two entering service in 2024 and 2026. North Korea realizes they could not develop and build anything similar. South Korea has a growing fleet of locally built submarines that can carry ballistic or cruise missiles. Most South Koreans now approve of building nuclear warheads, just in case North Korea foolishly makes a serious threat to use such missiles against South Korea or any other country. This made North Korea realize that the economically more powerful and technically more accomplished south not only can outproduce the north when it comes to any type of weapon but has actually done so many times and is now a major producer and exporter of modern weapons. South Korea is not impressed with North Korean threats to attack them with devastating effect. The north can attack, but the south can retaliate with far greater destructive force. That is why the north continues to issue threats that South Korea ignores.

The south was not always the major military power, and the current situation is a relatively recent development. There is another complication, much of this traced back to the Korean War that began in 1950 when the overconfident north invaded. The fighting went on until 1953 when both sides agreed to an armistice, not a peace treaty. The combat forces remained in place to avoid a revival of fighting. This created the 250 kilometers long DMZ (four kilometers wide demilitarized zone), which became the border between North and South Korea.

Since 1953 South Korea has become democratic, industrialized and it now has a GDP that is in the worldwide top ten. South Korea also became a major manufacturer and exporter of modern weapons. That included over ten billion dollars’ worth of weapons to NATO countries that border Russia or Ukraine. North Korea held onto its socialist ways and was misruled by the Kim dynasty. On a per capita basis, South Koreans are twenty times wealthier than the average North Korean. North Korea does have some nuclear weapons, but the Kim’s have not yet found a way to turn that into an improved standard of living for the average North Korean.

South Korea has been expanding its arms production since the 1990s and now, because of demand from NATO nations that sent a lot of weapons to Ukraine, South Korea is poised to enter the Top Five.

All this affluence had undesirable side effects, the primary one is declining population. South Korea already has a lower (1.11) birth rate than Japan. Taiwan has the lowest worldwide at 1.09, followed by South Korea, Singapore at 1.17 and Hong Kong at 1.23. The American birth rate is 1.66 but most Western nations have lower rates. For Europe as a whole, the rate is .98.

South Korea has profited from this because NATO nations bordering Ukraine or Russia have increased defense spending and purchased billions of dollars’ worth of South Korea weapons and munitions. South Korea produces a lot more military weapons and equipment than the north and it is of the highest quality. South Korea based its weapons on what the Americans were offering, but added additional features that made their weapons more attractive to export customers. This included lower prices.

Because of all these new export customers, South Korea is on-track to depose China from its current position as the fourth largest arms exporter. China has nuclear weapons, which is yet another incentive for South Korea to have them as well.




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