A Nuclear Korean Peninsula: The Dreaded Domino Effect in East Asia?

Mariola García-Cañada Candela

The nuclear dilemma in South Korea has become an everyday topic for its population. The intense provocations of Kim Jong Un have led 71% of the South Koreans to strive for the nuclearization of the Peninsula. This support is unlikely to decrease but rather grow as the threats from the North Korean leader continue intensifying through 2023 as they seek an exponential increase of their nuclear arsenal, which will be used as a defensive and offensive tool. This is no surprise when talking about the North Korean leader because, as Edward A. Olsen explains, Kim Jong Un’s best defence is a good offence. The actual concern lies in the South Korean and North American response to such threats, which, if they are nuclear, would undoubtedly escalate tensions in the Peninsula, increasing the possibility of the dreaded nuclear domino effect in East Asia.

Although support for the nuclearization of South Korea is strong within its population, this would only nurture another source of insecurity. Its middle power status, which has at the core of its policy the denuclearisation of the Peninsula via the development of diplomatic practices, is the most significant security guarantee South Korea has against future threats. This is why the acquisition of nuclear armament would not only increase its enemies but also create a never-ending loop of insecurity in East Asia. Given this situation, rivalries will be the norm, eliminating any development that the current diplomatic South Korean practices have achieved in managing international relations and alliances. The isolation of a nuclear South Korea could only increase chaos in East Asia, intensifying the latent rivalries between the territories while creating a greater security dilemma that could burst into a nuclear attack.

Furthermore, having a nuclear South Korea could not only create a more substantial security dilemma but lead to what Mark Fitzpatrick categorises as the nuclear “domino effect” in East Asia, which would enormously increase the possibility of having a nuclear attack. The tense atmosphere concerning Taiwan would justify, following South Korea’s argument of insecurity,the incorporation of nuclear capabilities into their armament. But this would not be limited to these two territories; Japan would also be willing to become part of the “nuclear group” not to feel disadvantaged in case a war occurs. In summary, given the region’s instability, the East Asian nuclear arms race would be the catalyst for destruction.

So overall, having a nuclear Korean Peninsula seeking to achieve greater security would be one the most disadvantageous decisions for the development of East Asia. On the one hand, it would most likely increase tensions and decrease diplomacy, making the use of force the most common action; on the other hand, it would generate a domino effect where the possibility of having a nuclear war would be closer than ever. This is why the most beneficial tool to achieve a secure East Asia is the use of diplomatic practices because, after all, the lack of trust worries Asian leaders the most. For states to feel safe, dialogue is essential.


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