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South Korea’s Role in China-US Arms Control

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South Korea’s Role in China-US Arms Control

South Korea naturally sees an arms control agreement between the United States and China as a logical objective. However, the complication lies with North Korea. 

South Korea’s Role in China-US Arms Control

U.S. Air Force maintainers stand by as a B-52H Stratofortress lands in South Korea, Oct. 17, 2023.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicole Ledbetter

From November 2 to 3, the Asia Economic Community Forum (AECF) took place in Incheon, South Korea. At this forum, which is aimed at enhancing cooperation among Asian countries, a special session hosted by the Taejae Future Consensus Institute drew considerable attention. The session, titled “Nuclear Arms Race and Emerging Security Challenges: Is U.S.-China Cooperation on Nuclear Disarmament Feasible?” featured representatives from the United States, China, and South Korea engaging in discussions. While South Korea has been grappling with determining its diplomatic stance amid the China-U.S. competition and strategizing how to induce North Korea’s denuclearization, the escalating rivalry between the United States and China underscores South Korea’s urgent need to address issues related to arms control.

On November 6, the United States and China engaged in rare discussions on nuclear arms control in Washington. Although no specific progress was reported, the fact that both nations acknowledged concerns about an unrestricted arms race holds significant implications. Historically, arms control between the United States and China has been considered impractical. China’s participation has been a crucial point of contention, whether during the collapse of the INF Treaty or the potential peril surrounding the New START. The U.S. has pressed for transparency and substantive engagement from China, while China has emphasized its asymmetrical nuclear capabilities compared to the United States.

From China’s perspective, it cannot ignore the quantitative asymmetry of nuclear weapons. This is particularly crucial when considering the number of targets and the missile capabilities to strike those targets, especially given the ongoing debates over nuclear targeting within the United States. While strategic stability has been a contentious concept since the Cold War, achieving strategic stability involves “both parties possessing a survivable second-strike capability, limiting the advantages of initiating nuclear weapon use (crisis stability), and restricting the benefits of building nuclear capabilities (arms-race stability).” The point is that both qualitatively and quantitatively, there needs to be a certain balance between the two.

However, waiting until the 2030s – when China could possess a similar number of nuclear weapons as the United States – to begin arms control talks is not a viable option. With the advent of a new nuclear era, concerns about various aspects of nuclear security persist, prompting the European Parliament to allocate significant resources for researching the implications of the Third Nuclear Age. The emergence of new technologies disrupting the existing deterrence paradigm, and the complex interplay of nuclear and non-nuclear forces within a multipolar nuclear order, add further uncertainty to the situation. Now, the United States and China must discuss not only the impact of new non-nuclear technologies on their strategic stability but also their influence on global nuclear order and the robust arms control.

From a geopolitical standpoint, South Korea, positioned between the U.S. and China, naturally sees an arms control agreement between the two as a logical objective. However, the complication lies with North Korea. 

The concept of strategic stability between superpowers is idealistic yet perilous from Seoul’s perspective. While South Korea urges the United States and China to disarm for the sake of North Korea’s denuclearization, Seoul is wary that such efforts may negatively impact its ability to deter and respond to Pyongyang. As North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons program, South Korea, without possessing any nuclear weapons, finds itself in the precarious position of observing the China-U.S. nuclear arms competition in one of the most volatile regions in Asia, the Korean Peninsula.

Amid escalating nuclear threats in East Asia, South Korea must take the lead in advancing international agendas on a broader scale. This begins by sharing concerns about the risk of mutual annihilation through nuclear escalation and nuclear proliferation among East Asian countries. In this region, where military powers abound, points of potential crisis – such as Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea – exist as potential flashpoints that could undermine the strategic stability of the United States and China. If a crisis occurs, it will be challenging for the U.S. and China to control it on their own, requiring collaborative efforts with regional countries like South Korea and Japan.

In the current international nuclear balance, South Korea’s capabilities may be modest, but its role must be reinforced. While Seoul aspires to expand its role as a global pivotal state, international expectations also demand such a role from South Korea. Although led by the United States, China, and Russia, and even requiring compliance of North Korea, South Korea’s role in nuclear arms control should not be underestimated. Balancing with the reinforcement of deterrence against North Korea, strengthening Seoul’s role in international disarmament and nonproliferation efforts can be summarized in several key points.

First, the focus should be on technology control rather than quantitative disarmament. Given the mutual distrust regarding quantitative parity, initial cooperation might be achievable by concentrating on “technology control” of each weapon system. The impact of new technologies on nuclear stability remains uncertain and challenging to predict. Research on topics such as the military use of artificial intelligence (AI) initiated at the United Nations may support efforts to promote arms control and non-proliferation. AI and space capabilities can lead to prompt Launch on Warning (LoW) and high confidence in technical measures of nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems. The nexus between nuclear and cyber could increase the possibility of nuclear escalation. Such technology is not exclusive to the United States or China; North Korea could possess it as well.

Second, the advantages of a “No First Use”(NFU) policy between the United States and China are evident. South Korea has previously advocated against the adoption of NFU by the U.S., primarily to deter North Korea. However, relying solely on deterring North Korea through the threat of a first-use nuclear strike is ineffective, and the South Korea-U.S. alliance is not exclusively bound by nuclear weapons. Given the possibility of an earlier crisis due to the potential first use in this region, which could trigger North Korea’s miscalculation, the threshold for nuclear use is becoming lower. The potential for a first-use nuclear strike is a complex concept composed of various doctrines and has become more complicated with technological advancements. 

Third, competition in tactical nuclear weapons must be eased. In the Indo-Pacific region, where sharp conflicts in national interests occur, tactical nuclear weapons pose significant dangers. Even if we do not assume the worst-case scenario, the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in a crisis involving Taiwan or Kashmir cannot be ruled out. If nuclear weapons were to be used at the front line, it would likely be tactical nuclear weapons that can adjust the yield, rather than strategic nuclear weapons. While promising NFU is important, it is also crucial to refrain from developing and deploying tactical nuclear weapons that can lower the threshold for nuclear use. Discussions among regional countries about the risks posed by North Korea’s development of tactical nuclear weapons are necessary.

Fourth, non-nuclear weapon states need to re-emphasize the Negative Security Assurance (NSA). Russia, by openly threatening the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, is undermining the NPT regime. Non-nuclear weapon states have continuously called for nuclear weapon states to pursue NSA through the Conference on Disarmament, the United Nations General Assembly, and NPT review conferences. However, due to differing strategic understandings among nuclear weapons states, these calls have not been formalized. As North Korea advances its nuclear weapons, South Korea cannot pursue only NSA while considering the complexities associated with nuclear umbrella promises. Nevertheless, NSA remains the last resort for safeguarding the security of states that have “voluntarily given up the nuclear weapons option by becoming parties” to the NPT.

During the Cold War, arms control in Europe aimed at reducing military capabilities between NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization had a clear objective of mitigating mutual threats. Discussions at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe focused on improving relations and building confidence among nations, while the Mutually Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) negotiations addressed arms reductions based on mutual understanding between the Eastern and Western blocs. Although immediate arms reduction agreements were not reached, the 17-year MBFR process allowed for mutual understanding and joint awareness, eventually contributing to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.

The resumption of China-U.S. nuclear arms control dialogue is a positive development. However, achieving tangible results in a short period is challenging. The situation is even more complex in the Asian region, where various potential conflict factors and changes in security environments are creating a vicious cycle of arms competition rather than promoting military cooperation among regional nations. Therefore, efforts toward arms control are even more critical in the Asian region. 

Although at a nascent stage, trilateral military cooperation between South Korea, China, and Japan hit a high point in the 2010 trilateral summit, where agreements were reached on nuclear security and arms reduction. In a situation where the risk of nuclear war persists, the benefits of arms control are clear, making South Korea’s role more crucial than ever.