Balancing Nuclear Ambitions on the Korean Peninsula

July 29, 2014

Host: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & the Korean Economic Institute


Dr. Park Jin, Executive President, Asia Future Institute

In a somewhat ironic twist, it is the Republic of Korea (the ROK, aka. South Korea), not the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the DPRK, aka. North Korea), that has drastically increased its nuclear capacity over the past decade. However, unlike its belligerent and hostile neighbor, the DPRK the ROK has been developing its nuclear program for primarily civilian purposes (to increase its nuclear energy production and further diversify the country’s energy portfolio). Regardless of the ROK’s intent, the development of its nuclear program signals that the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula is changing, shifting from a conventional balance to a nuclear one. With this development comes a new level of tension – as the DPRK has increased its confrontational rhetoric towards both the ROK and the U.S. – and also risks, as the possibility for further proliferation throughout the region and also for nuclear conflicts intensifies.

With 23 nuclear reactors already competed and online, the ROK has quickly become one of the largest nuclear powers in the world. Unlike the DPRK, the U.S., and other nuclear powers around the world, the ROK’s nuclear program has, thus far, been used solely for civilian and commercial purposes. However, as Dr. Park explained, the ROK is in a tough spot. Having already invested heavily in its nuclear infrastructure, the ROK has a duty to its citizens to further advance its nuclear program. Nevertheless, as its capabilities grow, the ROK also wants to generate revenue by exporting its civil nuclear technology around the world. It has already signed a deal with the UAE to help develop its own nuclear program, for example. Moves such as this have drawn concern and criticism from the DPRK, the U.S., and other countries around the world. Dr. Park believes that this move is setting a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world and therefore urges the U.S. and ROK to engage in new levels of cooperation. The only way the ROK can further advance its nuclear program and export its technology is by working with the U.S. through a transparent framework.

What is need most on the Korean Peninsula, according to Dr. Park, is earnest dialogue. In order to achieve greater security the ROK needs to develop stronger ties with the U.S., DPRK, and China so that it may be as transparent as possible about its civil nuclear program. Dr. Park called on President Park Geun-hye and other ROK leaders to be more assertive in demanding that China, the North’s strongest ally, play a more active role in the Korean conflict. Although President Xi Jinping has said he opposes the DPRK’s nuclear advances, China’s policy towards the DPRK has gone largely unchanged and is working only to maintain the status quo. Given the recent execution of Jang Sung-Thaek, who was described as having close ties to Chinese leaders, and also President Xi’s recent slight against the DPRK, Dr. Park argues that China could be rethinking its policies toward the DPRK. Now is as good a time as ever for the ROK to push China and have it utilize its influence to bring about a more cooperative North Korea.

Regardless whether strong outside actions are taken, dynamics on the Korean Peninsula are changing. In the midst of an economic crisis, the DPRK is forming lasting business and energy ties with Russia, signaling that it has recognized the need to open up to the outside world in order for the country to survive. Should the ROK and China take similar approaches and demonstrate the benefits that come with cooperation, there is a chance for lasting stability and demilitarization on the Peninsula. With such objectives potentially on the horizon, the U.S. and ROK should do all they can to expand communication, increase cooperation, and further secure peace and prosperity throughout the region.

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31. July 2014 by Will Houstoun
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