Lawmakers in Seoul are reportedly mulling the idea that South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons. This is partly a response to apparent advances in North Korea's missile technology, and it is partly a response to signs that the United States may want to take less responsibility for the region's security. And it could well be a good thing.
It is popularly believed that nuclear proliferation increases both the risk of conflict and the potential damage of those conflicts. But this may be a misconception. The most prominent example of nuclear proliferation in the post–Cold War era is on the Indian subcontinent. India and Pakistan fought several wars with each other after they won independence, but since 1998, when both came out as nuclear powers, the two countries have not had any major military conflicts. They still have points of contention and occasional border clashes, but the nuclear holocaust predicted by anti-proliferationists is unlikely to come to pass.
As Jonathan Tepperman, now the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote in Newsweek years ago, there is a compelling case that nuclear weapons make the world safer, not more dangerous. A big part of this is the fact that no two nuclear states have gotten into a full-fledged non-nuclear war with each other, let alone a nuclear one.
"To understand why—and why the next 64 years are likely to play out the same way—you need to start by recognizing that all states are rational on some basic level," Tepperman wrote. "Their leaders may be stupid, petty, venal, even evil, but they tend to do things only when they're pretty sure they can get away with them."
Writing in The Nonproliferation Review last year, Michael D. Cohen pointed out that "proliferation pessimists have failed to specify how and when nuclear proliferation precipitates conflict" and that the dangers of proliferation are "substantially weaker than usually assumed."
The case of South Korea poses other important questions, namely how long the United States is expected to guarantee security on the Korean peninsula. While President Trump has sounded more skeptical than any other postwar president about America's proper role in maintaining peace around the world, his administration frequently rattles its rhetorical sabres over North Korea's nuclear weapons. It has also tried to draw China, and even Russia, into the Korean peace process. This has taken a dark turn recently: American expectations of what China can do exceed Beijing's capabilities, and the U.S.'s continued involvement in the issue deincentivizes China from making more of an effort.
The U.S. might do well to encourage South Korea—and Japan—to explore their options for taking responsibility for their own self-defense vis a vis North Korea. Pyongyang has been adept at playing the various regional powers, plus the United States, against each other and finding a space to survive in the daylight between this countries.
The Korean War ended 64 years ago this month, and the U.S. has maintained a military presence on the peninsula ever since, alleviating the pressure on regional powers to work toward a solution while placing more costs on the United States. America's security commitments should not be perpetual. As World War 2 recedes further into history, its influence on U.S. international relations remains firm. It is past time for Americans, South Koreans, and others to re-evaluate the wisdom of the current order and work toward reforming it.