U.S., South Korea rift risks nuclear option, analysts say

By Elizabeth Shim
Activists protest cost-sharing talks between South Korea and the United States as a top U.S. negotiator arrives at Incheon International Airport in Seoul on Nov. 17. Photo by Yonhap/EPA-EFE
Activists protest cost-sharing talks between South Korea and the United States as a top U.S. negotiator arrives at Incheon International Airport in Seoul on Nov. 17. Photo by Yonhap/EPA-EFE

NEW YORK, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- Increased uncertainty about the future of the alliance between the United States and South Korea could unleash a new chain of destabilizing events, including Seoul's decision to develop nuclear weapons, analysts say.

The South Korean decision to nuclearize is a remote option at present. But Jeffrey Robertson, associate professor of diplomatic studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, says South Korea could see it as a more viable course of action if Washington chooses to alienate Seoul amid the Trump administration's demands it pay anywhere from $5 billion to $15 billion for U.S. troops, on and beyond the peninsula.


Without the stability that comes with the alliance, South Korea will be "tempted to strengthen its capacity to defend against North Korea, potentially including an independent nuclear weapons capacity," Robertson told UPI.


"And North Korea will feel less secure regarding Seoul's intentions and actions in any future scenario. This doubt decreases predictability, and invites miscalculation."

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Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and author of Japan, South Korea, and the United States Nuclear Umbrella, says the United States' extended deterrence to protect its Asian allies has ruled out a nuclear option for Seoul and Tokyo.

But recent events, including an abruptly ended round of U.S.-South Korea negotiations over a reported five-fold increase of nearly $5 billion for troop presence, is worrisome, Roehrig told UPI.

"We are pushing [South Korea and Japan], particularly South Korea, in the direction of [acquiring nuclear arms] in regards to our policy," the analyst said. "It's a mistake."

Failure to closely cooperate with South Korea on security has wide-ranging implications. A nuclear South Korea would "change the calculus" with Japan as well, Roehrig said.

A dangerous game

Strained relations between Washington and Seoul invite other risks in South Korea, which has consistently ranked No. 1 in Internet connectivity and smartphone ownership in the world, and public opinion shifts rapidly across online platforms.


"With political populism and social media, public opinion is more important than it's ever been in alliance management," Robertson said. "In neglecting public opinion, the Trump administration risks long-term, irreversible damage to the alliance."

Andrew Yeo, associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, says policymakers on both sides share favorable views of the alliance, which gives it "some flexibility to withstand domestic pressure."

"However, public opinion in South Korea can quickly sour, leading to anti-U.S. protests as witnessed in the early 2000s," Yeo said.

The ongoing burden-sharing negotiations have begun to have some impact in Seoul, where in October local university students were arrested after trespassing into the U.S. ambassador's residence during a protest.

The "unbelievable" demands of the Trump administration have also raised concerns of troop withdrawal, which can go as low as 22,000 without violating the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, Roehrig says.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper ruled out withdrawal last week, but Yeo says President Donald Trump's seriousness about burden-sharing demands does not reduce the risks.

"Given Trump's past statements questioning the cost of U.S. force deployment, there is a real possibility that a breakdown in the Special Measures Agreement could open the door for discussions about troop withdrawals," he said.


Trump has argued withdrawing troops would benefit the United States, but according to Roehrig, half the cost of deployment is already covered by South Korea. If troops leave, the United States would have to bear their entire cost, the analyst added.

Yeo, author of Asia's Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century, says the United States is able to provide a deterrent effect against North Korea because of its military on the peninsula.

A widening U.S.-South Korea rift allows North Korea to exploit gaps, subsequently weakening Washington's negotiating position vis-à-vis Pyongyang, Yeo said.

North Korea has demanded the United States take a radically different approach to diplomacy. The regime has also said it would not give up nuclear weapons.

Trump and Kim Jong Un last met at Panmunjom in June.

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