Can South Korea be a middle nuclear power?

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Can South Korea be a middle nuclear power?

Posted on October 28, 2022

Recent debates over South Korea securing an independent nuclear weapons capability have touched on several issues, including strategic relevance and operational utility, its impact on the U.S. alliance, how it will affect the balance of power on the Korean peninsula and its contribution to regional armament. competition. Less discussed has been the issue of South Korea as a “nuclear middle power” – an oxymoron for many specialists in middle power diplomacy.

The modern conceptualization of middle power originated at the height of liberal internationalism with the formation of the United Nations in the 1940s. Until the late 1960s, individual middle powers toyed with the idea of ​​securing nuclear weapons. Australia and Canada have, at certain stages, pursued nuclear weapons. However, their renunciation of this goal quickly became associated with the broader aura of “do-goodism” or “good international citizenship” which from then on marked the concept.

During the 1970s, middle powers helped establish a number of very important international conventions against nuclear weapons. Australia and Canada have led the fight for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to control the spread of nuclear weapons and have played an important role in the review conferences. They were instrumental in creating the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which sought to establish controls over precursor materials, and the Canberra Commission, which sought to reduce the spread and eliminate nuclear weapons. Through the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), middle powers have fought against unbridled testing and expansion of nuclear arsenals.

One of the most characteristic middle-power campaigns of the 1980s was the Australian and New Zealand effort to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific. It had all the hallmarks of middle power diplomacy – middle powers building a coalition of small Pacific states acting through multiple multilateral fora in coordination with NGOs to constrain great power actions while addressing citizen issues international arms control and environmental issues. Middle powers, almost by definition, have opposed the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

How then did we arrive at a situation where a leading intermediate power is in the middle of a debate to secure an independent nuclear weapons capability?

There are three potential academic answers to this question – and none of them provides an adequate answer.

First, South Korea may not be a middle power. As I said before, there are certain characteristics that set South Korea apart from other middle powers: it was a late entrant; never espoused the same consistency in values; is not inherently a status quo power; and to some extent lacks institutional capacity and depth. South Korea occupies different positions from “ideal-type” middle powers, such as Canada and Australia, on issues such as the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Russia/Ukraine. As other scholars have noted, for South Korea, being a middle power is as much about status as it is about identity.

Second, middle powers as conceptualized in the 1980s may no longer exist. Middle Powers could be a synchronic classification – a typology that cannot exist outside of its specific post-war, post-Cold War, and post-Cold War time frame. Remove the liberal-internationalist context of the time, and the structures that supported their existence also disappear. We no longer have Western powers, have largely forgotten about non-aligned powers, and rarely use the term superpowers. Why do we still use the term average power? This could explain the gradual dissociation of traditional middle powers, such as Canada and Australia, from the concept.

Along the same lines, a scholar of early middle powers has noted that during periods of reduced security tension, the medium powers balance out the great powers, and during periods of increased security tension, they link up with the great powers. powers. As South Korea has always been in an intermittent state of heightened security tension, its path as a middle power is distinct. Now, as Sino-US tension rises, the bandwagon could be misinterpreted as taking on a greater burden in securing an independent nuclear weapons capability.

Third, perhaps the academics who advocate middle-power diplomacy are simply wrong. The whole concept was a chicken dressed up as a turkey. Created by diplomats and pushed by politicians, academics have been content to follow the concept without bothering to check whether it made sense within the discipline and the wider social sciences. There are assumptions that were only true for a few selected countries; no meaningful definitions; full of nuanced relationships to account for this or that case; and outright confusion about what units to measure. It’s a theoretical mess. As one academic said, everyone is now a middle power.

Along the same lines, there is a strong argument to be made that middle powers have always been the product of US-led liberal internationalism. Diplomatic behaviors characteristic of niche diplomacy have never been attributed to Saudi Arabia’s support for the spread of Wahhabi Islam, nor has good international citizenship been attributed to Iran’s support. to Palestine. From this point of view, the middle power project was only a five-decade effort to distinguish a small number of the United States’ Western allies from other states that they considered less important at the time – with all the inherent racism such an approach entails. . Reflecting this, the middle powers were anti-nuclear because they were already protected by the American nuclear umbrella. This potentially explains non-Western states, rarely called middle powers, such as India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, which pursue nuclear weapons programs.

There’s a lot to unpack in the three academic answers above. While how we use language and how we identify and label ourselves is important, whether South Korea calls itself a middle power or not will do nothing to prevent it from building a weapons capability. independent nuclear. In the end, it’s just academic bullshit. Ultimately, preventing South Korea from going down the nuclear path requires less academic dithering and more diplomacy.

Dr. Jeffery Robertson is a Nonresident Scholar at the Korea Economic Institute of America, Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and Visiting Scholar at the Korea Studies Research Hub at the University of Melbourne. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Photo by sinano1000 photostream on Creative Commons flickr.

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