Illustration: Craig Stephens
Nicola Leveringhaus
Nicola Leveringhaus

Worrying revival of interest in nuclear weapons in China and South Korea

  • The narrative is changing in China as its nuclear programme is increasingly tied to national rejuvenation, and in South Korea where there is overwhelming support for a nuclear defence against the North
  • The value of nuclear restraint needs to be promoted and supported to avoid greater insecurity
With loose Russian nuclear talk grabbing the headlines of late, North Korea’s military activities have largely gone under the radar. Yet Kim Jong-un’s dogged pursuit of missile and nuclear capabilities continues apace, with “tactical” cruise missile tests in recent weeks, and a seventh nuclear test expected soon – its last test was in 2017.
No magnifying glass is needed to appreciate the dismal state of nuclear politics in Northeast Asia. Yet this was not inevitable. In the 1980s and 1990s, the region was on a restrained nuclear path. Back then, China actively practised the nuclear minimalism it preached, joining deals such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. US president George H.W. Bush even opted to remove US nuclear weapons from allied Asian soil, including South Korea.

Unfortunately, three decades on, there is a revival of interest in nuclear weapons within Northeast Asia. This revival is clearly visible in China, where a build-up of strategic forces is under way.

The discovery of new missile silo bases last year, the mass development of dual-use missiles (for nuclear or conventional strikes) such as the DF-26, coupled with hypersonic capabilities and nuclear-armed submarines showcase an unprecedented level of military options for decision-makers in Zhongnanhai. The virtues of minimalism and nuclear restraint seem to be fading fast for China’s strategic community and Communist Party elites.

Beyond new technology, a less-well-documented discovery is that the domestic narrative around the atomic bomb is changing. Once of little public interest, the scientific story of China’s nuclear weapons programme is now enthusiastically commemorated by the Communist Party.

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-17 ballistic missiles are seen at a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, in Beijing on October 1, 2019. Trucks carrying weapons, including a nuclear-armed missile designed to evade US defences, were part of the parade which showcased China’s global ambitions. Photo: AP
President Xi Jinping has had a hand in shaping public consciousness, for instance by celebrating “strategic scientists”, like the late Qian Xuesen who was pivotal to China’s missile programme. While previous leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin have sometimes linked China’s nuclear arsenal to a national sense of greatness, Xi goes further.
In December 2015, for example, China’s nuclear forces were elevated in status – the Second Artillery Corps was renamed the PLA Rocket Force and upgraded from an independent branch to a full military service – and their significance for China’s great power status reaffirmed. Soap operas and Chinese media now frequently glorify China’s nuclear achievements, from those by strategic scientists to rapid jumps such as the development of atomic (1964) and hydrogen (1967) capabilities under Mao Zedong.

In essence, nuclear commemoration bolsters a wider political narrative around China’s national rejuvenation and greatness that has become a hallmark of Xi’s leadership.

South Korea is also witnessing a nuclear revival of sorts. On the one hand, the active pursuit of an indigenous conventional “ strategic strike system” – which includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles, as well as missile defence systems – is intended to counter the growing security threat posed by North Korea.


Kim Jong-un oversees missile launch, one of several recent tests by North Korea

Kim Jong-un oversees missile launch, one of several recent tests by North Korea

On the other hand, South Korea continues to rely on extended deterrence from the American nuclear umbrella, though there have been concerns over the credibility of this nuclear promise for decades.

As with China, it is disturbing to look beyond the tech: recent polls in South Korea indicate that public support for nuclear weapons has surpassed 70 per cent. The country’s political elite seem more open to strategic options, with former president Moon Jae-in supporting the development of nuclear-powered submarines, and current leader Yoon Suk-yeol set on the same course.

As recently as last month, Yoon reaffirmed the official position that South Korea would remain non-nuclear. That the statement was needed in the first place was telling.

South Korea reconsiders nuclearisation to counter North threat

Why does domestic discourse around the atomic bomb matter? In China, where the bomb has for many years not featured high on the public agenda, a new level of importance afforded to its nuclear past may have implications for its future, tying the Communist Party elite more closely to the bomb in their vision of China as a great rejuvenated power.

A more invested public also adds a layer of pressure on government delegations in any future negotiations over arms control, nuclear reduction or verification.

For a non-nuclear weapons state such as South Korea, domestic appetite for the bomb directly undermines the positive image of an Asian middle power that has long supported nuclear restraint and responsibility, most notably when it hosted the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in 2012.

How should others respond to these new domestic dynamics away from nuclear restraint? Several ideas have been floated. One is that the United States should create an Asian Nuclear Planning Group, bringing Australia, Japan and South Korea into the US nuclear planning processes. While this may be a useful tool for the US, the question remains whether it is equally good for all US allies.


‘US compelled us’: Pyongyang says Washington to blame for North Korea’s nuclear first-use law

‘US compelled us’: Pyongyang says Washington to blame for North Korea’s nuclear first-use law
Another is to expand the Aukus arrangement, for instance extending nuclear-powered submarine technology to South Korea. An opposing view is to stand back and let these domestic narratives play out with minimal interference.

What all these responses have in common is that they actively or passively help reinforce a move away from nuclear restraint. What space is there in these ideas to talk about the growing risk of accidents and misuse, or how to manage nuclear security and safeguards? These things matter for Northeast Asia, where the prospect of major conflict, whether with North Korea or China, grows every month.

The disturbing domestic turn away from nuclear restraint in East Asia does not need nourishment or support from others. Rather, the value of nuclear restraint needs to be promoted and supported. Failure will result in a more militarised and insecure region, further locked out of nuclear restraint. Cooler heads are not prevailing on nuclear matters in Northeast Asia right now, and we should all be concerned.

Dr Nicola Leveringhaus is senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She specialises in nuclear weapons issues in Northeast Asia, especially China