Newsstand headlines in Seoul have issued fresh warnings of a possible nuclear test by North Korea.
On the sidewalks, 28-year-old office worker Lee Jae Sang already had an opinion on how to respond to North Korea’s growing ability to drop nuclear bombs across borders and oceans.
“Our country should also develop a nuclear program. And prepare for a possible nuclear war,” Lee said, expressing a desire that a February poll found was shared by 3 out of 4 South Koreans.
This is a point that people and politicians in non-nuclear powers around the world are raising more often, at what has become a destabilizing moment in more than half a century of global nuclear non-proliferation efforts, a compounded by the daily example of nuclear Russia tearing apart non-nuclear Ukraine.
This reconsideration by non-nuclear states is playing out in Asia. The region is home to an increasingly assertive North Korea, China, Russia and Iran – three nuclear powers and one near-nuclear power – but is not protected by the kind of nuclear umbrella and broad defense alliance that , for decades, have protected NATO countries.
Vulnerable countries will look to Ukraine’s lessons – especially if Russia manages to swallow large chunks of Ukraine while wielding its nuclear arsenal to keep other nations at bay – as they consider retaining or pursue nuclear weapons, security experts say.
Equally important, they say, is the ability of the United States and its allies to persuade other partners in Europe, the Persian Gulf and Asia to trust the shield of US-led nuclear and conventional arsenals. United and not pursue their own nuclear bombs.
For leaders worried about hostile, nuclear-armed neighbours, “they will say to their domestic audience, ‘Please support our nuclear weaponry because look what happened to Ukraine’, don’t right?” said Mariana Budjeryn, a researcher in the Atomic Management Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
As a schoolgirl in 1980s Soviet-era Ukraine, Budjeryn explained how to bandage radiation burns and other potential injuries from nuclear war, at a time when that country was home to some 5,000 nuclear weapons from Soviet Union. His country renounced the development of nuclear weapons after the breakup of the Soviet Union, opting for economic assistance and integration with the West and security guarantees.
“At the end of the day, I think a lot depends on the outcome of this war in terms of understanding the value of nuclear weapons,” Budjeryn said.
Around the world, the US military is reassuring its strategic partners who are facing nuclear-backed rivals.
Near the North Korean border this month, white-hot ballistic missiles streaked across the night sky as the United States joined South Korea in its first joint ballistic test launches in five years. It was a pointed response to North Korea launching at least 18 ballistic missiles this year.
In Europe and the Persian Gulf, President Joe Biden and American generals, diplomats and troops are shuttling to countries neighboring Russia and to oil-producing countries neighboring Iran. Biden and his top aides promise that the United States is committed to blocking nuclear threats from Iran, North Korea and others. In China, President Xi Jinping is combining an aggressive foreign policy with one of his country’s biggest pushes on nuclear weapons.
Some former senior Asian officials have quoted Ukraine as saying it’s time more non-nuclear countries considered acquiring nuclear weapons or harboring American ones.
“I don’t think Japan or South Korea are eager to become nuclear weapon states. This will be extremely painful politically and internally divisive. But what are the alternatives?” Singapore’s former foreign minister, Bilahari Kausikan, told a defense forum in March.
For those hoping North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons, the example provided by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “another nail in that coffin,” said Terence Roehrig, professor of national security at the US Naval War College, at another defense forum in April.
“Ukraine is going to be another example for North Korea of states like Iraq and Libya giving up their nuclear capability – and look what happened to them,” Roehrig said.
Ukraine has never had any nuclear bombs ready to go off – at least none that it could fire on its own.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left Ukraine with the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. But Ukraine had no operational control. This left him with a weak hand in the 1990s when he negotiated with the United States, Russia and others over his place in the post-Soviet world and the fate of the Soviet arsenal. Ukraine has obtained assurances but no guarantees regarding its safety, Budjeryn said.
“A piece of paper”, is how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called one of these assurances, signed in 1994.
The United States itself has given nuclear and nuclear-curious nations plenty to worry about giving up the world’s deadliest weapons.
The West coerced Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi into abandoning his country’s crude nuclear weapons program in 2003. A few years later, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam shared with researcher Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer the his father’s greatest concern about this – that Western nations would support an uprising against him.
“And lo and behold, a few years later, in 2011, you saw what happened,” said Braut-Hegghammer, now a professor of nuclear strategy and security at the University of Oslo.
What happened was that NATO, at the request of the United States, intervened in a 2011 internal uprising against Gaddafi. A NATO fighter plane bombed his convoy. The rebels captured the Libyan leader, sexually abused him and killed him.
In Iraq, the United States played a central role in forcing Saddam Hussein to abandon his nuclear development program. Then the United States overthrew Saddam in 2003 over a false claim that he was reassembling a nuclear weapons effort. Three years later, with Iraq still under American occupation, Saddam plunged through a gallows.
The fall and brutal death of Middle Eastern leaders has clouded denuclearization efforts with North Korea. Rare talks between the US and North Korea in 2018 collapsed after the Trump administration repeatedly referred to the ‘Libyan model’ and Vice President Mike Pence threatened Kim Jong-un with fate of Gaddafi. “Ignorant and stupid,” replied the North Korean government.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “just underscores to some countries, at least, that if you have a nuclear weapons program, and you’re far enough away with it, giving it up is a terrible idea”, said Braut-Hegghammer.
The world’s nine nuclear powers – the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea – possess some 13,000 nuclear weapons. Israel does not recognize its nuclear program.
The major nuclear powers have historically sought to control which countries can lawfully join the club. Countries that continue regardless, including Iran and North Korea, are isolated and sanctioned.
Nuclear experts cite South Korea and Saudi Arabia among the countries most likely to consider nuclear weapons. In 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to immediately acquire nuclear bombs if Iran did.
It’s surprising that more countries haven’t acquired a bomb, Jessica Cox, NATO’s chief nuclear officer, said at the April forum.
“If you look at it from a historical perspective, it’s not at all clear in the 1950s and 1960s that there would be less than 10 nations armed with nuclear weapons in the world…70 more late.”
What made the difference in Europe was NATO’s nuclear deterrent – 30 nations sharing responsibility and decision-making for a nuclear arsenal that deters all attacks, Cox said.
Many believe Ukraine made the right decision when it avoided possible isolation by renouncing a nuclear future. This has given Ukraine three decades to integrate into the global economy and forge alliances with powerful nations that now help it defend against Russia.
As a young woman in Ukraine, Budjeryn realized at some point after the 1990s accords that her own work, then in business development, was being funded by the Clinton administration, as part of the rewards of the West to Ukraine for the nuclear deal.
“If Ukraine wins,” she said, “then it will communicate that nuclear weapons are useless.”
“But if Ukraine falls, the story will be very different,” she said.
Chang reported from Seoul.