Will South Korea Go Nuclear?

What the North's provocations mean for Washington's relations with Seoul.

Pyongyang's third nuclear test, conducted February 12, may well have serious long-term implications for regional and international security. Right now, however, the acute tension on the Korean peninsula is threatening critical negotiations on peaceful nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea. If negotiators don't close on a new agreement by June -- in time for Congress to consider it -- billions of dollars worth of nuclear energy projects in the United States, Korea, and elsewhere may soon halt.

Under an existing nuclear agreement inked 40 years ago, South Korea worked with U.S. companies and government agencies to build infrastructure that now generates 30 percent of the country's electricity with fission energy. Korean firms are now partnering with American vendors at home, in the United States, and in China, and they have won multi-billion dollar contracts to export nuclear power plants based on U.S. technology. Renewing the deal, which expires in March 2014, sounds like a foregone conclusion.

It isn't. Two years of negotiations have not produced an agreement. The sticking point is South Korea's demand that it be permitted to extract the uranium and plutonium stored in thousands of tons of spent reactor fuel -- fuel that originally came from the United States. Seoul argues that reprocessing the used fuel would reduce the stockpile at its power plants and produce new fuel. Beyond that, Seoul wants to secure public acceptance for building more reactors by demonstrating that it has a solution to deal with nuclear waste.

The United States, however, discourages countries from obtaining capabilities to enrich uranium and separate plutonium from spent fuel because that technology also allows countries to produce the explosive core of a nuclear weapon. So ultimately Washington's reluctance to let South Korea reprocess goes to the heart of U.S. confidence in whether Seoul will remain in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Since the North's most recent test, the crossroads Washington is at looks like this: It can accommodate a staunch ally at a critical moment, or refuse to give Seoul a free hand, consistent with global U.S. policy.

Lifting the Veil

Beginning with the February 12 test, Pyongyang has been escalating its threats against the South, announcing it won't honor the 60-year-old Korean War armistice and airing battle plans for a confrontation with South Korean forces. In response, press reports have showcased research demonstrating that most South Koreans favor Seoul having nuclear weapons, and they have cited South Korean politicians who appear to support a nuclear weapons "option" for the country.

So will Seoul reach for nuclear weapons in response to fresh North Korean threats? Currently, and for an indefinite period that transcends the negotiation of a new nuclear agreement, that is highly unlikely.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a South Korean think tank, announced a week after the test that two-thirds of Koreans polled between February 13 and 15 "supported a domestic nuclear weapons program." Some news media interpreted this as a signal that public opinion might pressure the government to develop nuclear weapons, but in fact Asan said the result of the poll was "virtually unchanged" from a year before. The press largely ignored results showing that the percentage of Koreans who believed that North-South relations were the "most salient" issue facing the country -- between 8 percent and 15 percent -- paled in comparison to the 40 percent most worried about job creation. According to Asan researchers, when media interest in North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests wanes, public concern drops.

A trickle of personalities in South Korea has gone on record since the North Korean test saying that they favor considering a nuclear weapons option. The most frequently-cited politician is Chung Moon Joon, a maverick legislator in the National Assembly who for several years has urged that the United States redeploy theater nuclear weapons on South Korean territory. For decades, the topic of an independent South Korean nuclear capability was a taboo; Chung's lifting of this veil in recent years was tailored to shock Beijing and Washington, and his message fills a niche in the conservative wing of Korean politics. But by no means are Chung's views mainstream.

What's more, in recent decades neither the South Korean government nor research organizations close to it have seriously analyzed what acquiring nuclear weapons would mean for the country.

The reason they have not done so is evident. Increasingly, South Korea has thrown its weight behind a policy of economic development based on international cooperation with trading partners, participation in international organizations and compacts, a security alliance with the United States, deployment of nuclear power technology, and -- especially since the late 1990s -- establishment of democratic institutions and a civil society. Today, most or all of these developments stand in the way of South Korean leaders pursuing nuclear weapons.

Consider the country's growing reliance on nuclear power. Four decades ago, South Korea turned to the atom when the cost of imported oil began to threaten the growing economy's balance of payments. Since the 1970s, South Korea has built and is now operating two dozen power reactors generating nearly a third of the country's electricity. South Korea is building more reactors, and it has installations for nuclear research, medicine, engineering, equipment manufacture, waste treatment, disposal, and fuel fabrication. Leaving aside the considerable investment in human capital associated with this effort, South Korea's peaceful nuclear energy assets might be worth several hundred billion dollars.

Should South Korea reach for nuclear arms, its nuclear program and its energy security would be at risk. Reactors would run out of fuel, and access to imported substitute fossil fuels might be embargoed. It is unclear whether the United States would sustain its security guarantee to South Korea. Outside the NPT, South Korea might be far more vulnerable to attack from the North, and its relations with China, Japan, and Russia might be frozen. On the other hand, with increasing wealth, perhaps South Korea might conclude in a crisis it could afford to take such risks.

The Longer Term -- and Park's U.S. Visit

The United States is not worried that, if it allows South Korea to reprocess its spent fuel, Seoul will start working on a bomb. But it is concerned that other countries would follow in South Korea's footsteps, that tensions with North Korea would increase, and that the threshold which has deterred Korean politicians from considering development of nuclear weapons might be lowered.

Provocative statements by some Korean commentators, and instinctive public support in favor of nuclear weapons registered by pollsters, express anxiety and vulnerability to North Korea's threat, not a strategy. In theory, that could change should North Korea acquire greater destructive capabilities and South Korean leaders lose confidence in U.S. promises to defend it from such capabilities. Long before reaching that point, however, South Korea's leaders would likely seek stronger defense commitments from the United States. Seoul and Washington would also both press China to weigh in with Pyongyang.

In early May, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye will arrive in Washington for her first state visit. Before that, the job of finishing the negotiation on the nuclear agreement will be taken over by the senior political level in both administrations. They will want to make a deal for Park to bring back to Korea. Details will be brushed aside. South Korea will argue that, because Washington's nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan gives Tokyo the right to separate the plutonium in its spent fuel, the United States should afford South Korea the same right.

But, when that agreement was signed, in 1988, the Asia-Pacific region was not bristling with hyper-nationalized territorial conflicts, North Korea was in the NPT and had no nuclear weapons, and the Cold War superpowers acted in consort as global nonproliferation enforcers. Today's world is very different, and the United States is disinclined to give the South the carte blanche approval it wants.



America Needs a Coast Guard That Can Fight

As the Arctic becomes an arena for conflict, the United States’ forgotten naval force will need to cowboy up.

Forget for a moment about the U.S. Navy and its "pivot to Asia." Over the next few decades, the woefully underfunded and thoroughly unsexy U.S. Coast Guard will likely hover near the center of the action.

The reason, in three short words: the Arctic Ocean.

If and when that icy expanse opens regularly to shipping, the Arctic will need policing, just like any other marine thoroughfare. It might even become a theater for geopolitical competition, although the short time it will be ice-free each year, the uneven advance and retreat of the icecap, and the unpredictable location of the sea lanes will limit its potential for conflict relative to, say, the Western Pacific or the Persian Gulf. But the potential is there, and up north, the Coast Guard's aging fleet of cutters and small craft will be critical to upholding maritime security and hedging against maritime conflict.

Placing a law-enforcement and disaster-response agency in charge will give operations in northern reaches a complexion unlike those in more hospitable climes -- where the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, services built to break things and kill people, are the chief bearers of American interests and aspirations. How can the Coast Guard prepare itself for this new era?

Founded in 1790, the Coast Guard takes pride in being the United States' oldest continuously functioning sea service. Composed of nearly 44,000 active-duty officers and enlisted sailors, who operate some 160 coastal and patrol combatants, 92 logistics and support craft, and 211 aircraft of various types, the service shoulders an imposing variety of missions: from safeguarding U.S. ports and harbors to rendering assistance following natural disasters. 

So why would Washington assign the U.S. Coast Guard the lead for Arctic operations? It has experience, for one thing. It operates the United States' modest flotilla of two icebreakers while performing the same police functions off North America's northern shorelines that it executes in warmer zones. Navy submarines prowled the Arctic depths during the Cold War. They will return if the polar region heats up, both figuratively and literally: U.S. Navy oceanographers estimate the ocean may be ice-free for a month each year by 2035. But Navy surface and air forces seldom venture north of the Arctic Circle and thus are less accustomed to the frigid surroundings. 

None of which is to say that sending in the Coast Guard is a slam dunk. It would probably be easier for the Navy and Marines to reinvent themselves as cold-weather expeditionary forces than for the quasi-police Coast Guard to reinvent itself as a battle force. But the main theaters for the more musclebound sea services lie far to the south, along the East and South Asian rimlands.

And there they will probably remain. China, the United States' newest competitor, is going nowhere. Nor will the Persian Gulf region morph into some placid oasis, obviating the U.S. nautical presence. Diplomatic and strategic imperatives -- not to mention the seemingly never-ending island disputes in the East and South China Seas -- will continue to summon Washington's attention and energies to Asia.

The Navy and Marine Corps, however, are almost certain to see their muscles atrophy amid shrinking budgets. Commanders and defense officials will need to concentrate increasingly scarce assets at the most critical places on the map. No one assumed U.S. fleets could be everywhere, in force, at all times, before the 1940s, when the United States in effect built a second navy for the Pacific. The old normal may become the sea services' new normal. 

Budget cuts combined with stagnant or dwindling forces may compel service chiefs to designate safe zones like the Atlantic Ocean "economy-of-force" theaters, where dangers are few and smaller, lighter forces can uphold U.S. interests in concert with allies. In effect, the Mediterranean, which saw some of the fiercest maritime encounters of the Cold War, is already there. The once-formidable U.S. Sixth Fleet, a force that long bestrode regional sea lanes, has shrunk to one permanently assigned vessel -- the command ship USS Mount Whitney. Barring a resurgent Russia, the same fate may await the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

The Navy and Marine Corps, then, will simply have too few ships, aircraft, and armaments to dedicate to regions of secondary importance. Suitably bulked up, and crewed by mariners who see themselves as warriors as well as the nation's 9-1-1 force, the Coast Guard would represent the go-to guarantor of security off the United States' northern ramparts. Heavy Navy and Marine forces would provide a backstop should serious conflict erupt. But Coast Guard commanders would have to hold their own against rival forces until reinforcements arrived.

So how's that going to work? Polar ventures may require the Coast Guard to square off against a serious military competitor, not just against lawbreakers and the elements. But pummeling enemy fleets, projecting power onto foreign shores, warding off ballistic missiles -- business as usual for the Navy/Marine Corps team -- are pursuits remote from the Coast Guard's everyday duties. It may even behoove the service to restore antisubmarine and surface-warfare capabilities dismantled at the Cold War's end. The Coast Guard fleet need not be a U.S. Navy in miniature, built to rule the waves. But the long arm of U.S. strategy needs battle capacity -- not just the light gunnery that now festoons American cutters. 

Another task will be to remake the Coast Guard's organizational culture, rediscovering the half-forgotten tradition of fighting for control of the sea. Command of the sea means wresting control from rival fleets or deterring them through overwhelming firepower. Police duty is something nations do after winning command. Constabulary work like the Coast Guard's thus differs sharply from combat. Battle demands a different mindset from scouring the sea for drug or weapons traffickers, or from rescuing seafarers in distress following a nor'easter. For the Coast Guard, spearheading Arctic strategy means relearning combat skills last practiced during World War II, while retaining the service's unique capabilities.

As the Royal Navy's Fleet Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham put it 70 years ago, "It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition." The material challenges -- designing ships and armaments, wringing funding out of lawmakers -- are the easiest. Revising habits of mind among the officer and enlisted corps is central to keeping the service's culture in tune with shifting realities. 

It won't be easy: For the Coast Guard, high-end combat has been an afterthought for decades. The service was subsumed within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Before that it was part of the Department of Transportation, not a natural bureaucratic home for a fighting service. By contrast, the Defense Department has been the Navy's master since 1947, when the National Security Act placed all of the armed services under the jurisdiction of the secretary of defense. These are different cultures despite their common seagoing heritage and missions.

The last time Coast Guard cutters undertook a traditional naval mission was in Vietnam -- and even then, U.S. forces faced no real threat to their command of offshore waters. World War II, when Coast Guard seafarers dueled U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, thus represents the service's last true encounter with high-intensity naval warfare.

Strategies pursued by constabulary agencies differ fundamentally from those pursued by combat arms. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz depicted international competition as an interactive struggle for strategic advantage. Neither contender is a lifeless mass on which the other imposes its will. Both sides think; both react; both thirst to win. Navies fight antagonists capable of contesting their use of the sea for military purposes. Relative parity is required; otherwise, the strong simply sweep feebler opponents from the briny deep. Navies win nautical command; coast guards help exercise it.

Coast guards also have adversaries, but they are starkly different in character. Mother Nature is one. No strategist can outthink a tsunami or an earthquake. Coast guardsmen succor the afflicted, then orchestrate recovery efforts. Coast guards do confront living adversaries, of course, but they are wrongdoers who disrupt good order at sea -- not the fleet's ability to transit hither and yon as it pleases. The gunrunner or human trafficker is a suspect to be apprehended and brought to justice, not an enemy to be outdueled and compelled to submit to U.S. political aims. Different assumptions about institutional purposes, the operating environment, and the adversary give rise to disparate cultures -- even among outwardly similar services roaming the wine-dark sea. 

To be sure, strategic documents such as the U.S. Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship point out that the Coast Guard executed warfighting missions in past conflicts and may do so again. It can merge with the Navy in wartime to constitute a combined national fleet, as it did during the world wars. Another document, Coast Guard Publication 3-0, Operations, instructs the service to prepare itself for "coastal sea control operations" in which cutters patrol off enemy shores as an adjunct to U.S. naval operations.

Below that threshold, the Coast Guard has been a supporting arm for maritime interdiction and port security for many years. During the first Gulf War, it stationed detachments aboard Navy warships cruising the Persian Gulf to board merchantmen suspected of defying the U.N. sanctions on Iraq. Nonetheless, traditional naval missions comprise only a small part of the Coast Guard's portfolio. A glance at any of its strategic documents reveals a dizzying array of functions. Small wonder crews seldom get to hone their combat prowess.

But even the vaunted U.S. Navy is probably a little bit rusty. Like the Coast Guard, the Navy has let its capacity to fight rival armadas decay since the Cold War. In 1992, the Navy leadership issued a strategic directive titled ...From the Sea. Its preamble proclaimed that the United States no longer faced a peer competitor with the demise of the Soviet Navy. Why prepare against a nonexistent foe? Such guidance from on high sent a powerful bureaucratic signal, in effect granting the Navy a holiday from history. Functions necessary for vanquishing enemy navies -- antisubmarine warfare, surface-to-surface missile engagements, mine countermeasures -- fell into disuse. Projecting power onto distant shores became the core of maritime strategy. Most assumed U.S. task forces could operate along those shores with impunity rather than fighting to pry open access. If the world's premier marine fighting force has let its battle capacity slip, it comes as little shock that the U.S. Coast Guard followed a similar trajectory.

How, then, can the Coast Guard become the vanguard of U.S. strategy in the Arctic Ocean? Here are four recommendations. First, service leaders should think about what it means for a Homeland Security agency to be the supported -- rather than a supporting -- element of a major undertaking like polar operations. The Coast Guard can revisit its past for insight. It was assigned to head up hemispheric defense off Greenland in the months before Pearl Harbor. There is ample, albeit musty, precedent for Coast Guard leadership in joint endeavors.

Second, the Coast Guard should renovate its high-end combat capability. That might mean rearming a fleet largely disarmed when the Soviet threat lapsed. Working with Congress, which controls the purse strings, and the Navy, which funded Coast Guard weaponry in decades past, will be a must. The Coast Guard should coordinate with the Navy to design a common strategy in which the Coast Guard is the frontline force and the Navy provides backup should things turn grim. The sister services can make a joint return to history -- reacquainting themselves with the rigors and perils of maritime command.

Third, the Coast Guard should court close working relations with navies and coast guards from fellow Arctic powers. The service excels in naval diplomacy: Its relatively modest-sized cutters resemble the assets fielded by foreign coast guards and navies far more than hulking U.S. Navy gray hulls do, while its functions resemble those of small-state maritime services. NATO offers a ready-made framework for combined operations, since four of five Arctic countries (as well as Iceland, a gatekeeper for access to northern waters) are Alliance members. The NATO-Russia Council, moreover, offers a convenient channel for reaching out to Moscow should times grow tense.

Last but not least, Coast Guard leaders should review their organizational culture, determine where the culture is wanting, and take measures to adapt it to evolving realities. Changing ingrained bureaucratic routines involves everything from revising recruitment practices to promoting and rewarding officers who embrace the leadership's goals to flexing important capabilities through frequent joint and combined exercises. Getting the human factor right is as crucial as building new hulls or installing sonars or guided missiles aboard cutters.

Fortunately, strategists and practitioners have time to think. A reliably navigable polar sea remains some three decades off. Still, the generation of officers who will oversee the Coast Guard's northern efforts is now entering the service. Farsighted leaders should start grooming them to discharge police and disaster-response missions while recovering the service's warfighting past. Today's heavy burdens may grow heavier. Semper paratus!

Benjamin Nocerini/U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images