Sum of All Fears: Russia’s Nuclear Threats and the Korean Peninsula

By | September 30, 2022 | No Comments

Sting’s end-of-the-Cold-War musical rumination that “Russians love their children too” seems almost as relevant today as it did in 1985. As Putin toys with the nuclear card over a specific piece of geography, one Korean academic believes that what happens in Eastern Europe will invariably effect the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Regardless that Russia has no intentions of attack the ROK, any concessions to Putin in response to his attempts at nuclear blackmail could encourage Kim Jong Un. Yoon Pyung-joong of Harshen University recently shared his thoughts in a Chosen Ilbo column, which Sino-NK has rendered into English as part of our ongoing coverage of how the Russia-Ukraine War affects the situation on the Korean Peninsula.  


[Yoon Pyung—joong’s Column] Is nuclear war an impossible scenario?[1]

Worst nuclear crisis in 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis. If fighting in Ukraine turns nuclear, it will be catastrophic for Korea. We need to devise a strong response to North Korea’s legal codification of its nuclear status. 


“We now reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in actual battle.” Thus Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has sought to engage in blackmail. Recently, the more Russia has issued nuclear threats, the stronger and more elaborate its logic has become. As soon as the wartime situation started going badly for Russia, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has been fidgeting with the nuclear button. This is the paradox behind the reasonable and heroic self-defense which Ukraine has been waging. This [situation] bitterly proves the US’s repeated warnings that “using nuclear weapons will be the end of Russia.” This is the biggest nuclear crisis ever since the Soviet-US nuclear standoff in 1962, known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis”.

Experts say that unless Putin is crazy, he can’t use nuclear weapons. Yet in stark contrast to expert predictions, Russia launched a direct invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Along with the decline of the United States, the universal principle of “no first use” put in place after World War II is collapsing. [We live in] an era when the efficacy of the UN and the NPT systems, subject to skepticism, is undergoing a great regression. The principle of Mutual Assured Destruction that has held war between nuclear great powers in check is also being shaken. We are missing the global leadership that has, up until now, prevented all-out war. 

South Korea has grown addicted to the 70 years of peace we’ve experienced under the ceasefire. We can see the decline of the UN and NPT systems that have served the ROK so well, yet South Korea is preoccupied with domestic squabbling. South Koreans, whose sense of national identity is centered on the Korean Peninsula, consider the war in Ukraine to be somebody else’s business. Yet South Korea is one of the places that has been directly affected by the global crisis over energy, natural resources and foodstuffs we speak of. If the Ukraine war turns into a nuclear war, the Korean Peninsula will find itself in the midst of a Doomsday scenario. 

This is because senior Russian officials have astonishingly issued public statements asserting the country’s “right to use nuclear weapons.” Putin is expected to wrap up the process of legally annexing the four occupied provinces of Ukraine, accounting for 15% of its territory. In order to recover its territory, any Ukrainian counteroffensive becomes “a military invasion of Russia’s territory.” Russia’s nuclear doctrine outlines that the country “can use nuclear weapons if our territory or sovereignty are violated”. If Russia raises its “special military operation” to the level of a nuclear war, the US cannot help but issue a nuclear response in turn. 

The nuclear-capable permanent members of the UNSC as well as India, Pakistan and Israel have layered systems to control their nuclear buttons, yet Russia and North Korea are different. There is nothing in place to stop Putin, who will either lose power or drive the circumstances necessitating him to push the nuclear button. Things are even worse in North Korea, whose national system centers on its possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear offensive capabilities became enshrined in law on September 9th, the anniversary of the establishment of the Korean Worker’s Party. It contains five conditions for a preemptive nuclear strike, including such operational necessities as “taking the lead in the case of war.” Even though a thuggish country has reserved the “right” to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike on South Korea, we act simply as if we’re watching a fire across the river.

On August 6, 1945, around 80 thousand people perished when a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and on August 9th around 30 thousand people died when a plutonium bomb fell on Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of victims suffered aftereffects in the two cities that became veritable hellscapes. It was an overwhelming force that caused the Japanese Empire to cry out “unconditional surrender”. Today, even small-scale tactical nuclear weapons are several dozen or several hundred times more powerful than the weapons that turned Hiroshima and Nagasaki into scorched wastelands, and strategic nuclear weapons are several hundred or several thousand times more destructive. Russia’s threat of a nuclear attack on Ukraine is directly linked to North Korea’s nuclear blackmail against the ROK. If Putin’s nuclear blackmail works, it is Kim Jong Un, with his gaze fixed on South Korea, who will be most glad. The bitter reason for this is South Korean society’s widespread lack of urgency regarding nuclear war. The US’s extended deterrence strategy holds North Korea’s nuclear arsenal at bay, but nothing lasts forever in international politics, even the protection of friendly countries. 

While nuclear war is a national issue, we are in the midst of an internal crisis over “presidential gaffes”. “Fighting on the inside was tougher than fighting outside, so the readers fought and fought inside the trapped castle” (Kim Hoon, “Namhan Sanseong”): in other words, Party politics is mainly aimed at killing off political opponents by twisting their words, doing so at a decisive moment when we are surrounded by external enemies. This is suffocating South Korean society. Words are important, but the business of surviving is way more urgent. On September 28th, North Korea launched a ballistic missile capable of having a nuclear weapon fixed to it into the East Sea. This year, North Korea has launched 18 ballistic missiles alone, yet there’s no way South Korea alone can defend itself from North Korean nuclear weapons. Setting up a “South Korean-style Iron Dome” is a matter of national survival and life-or-death for our citizens. Now, South Korea’s most pressing task is either participating in a NATO-type nuclear sharing deal or acquiring its own nuclear weapons. A nuclear war in the 21st century is not an impossible scenario.


Original article by Yoon Pyung-joong, Hanshin University. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.


[1] Source: [Yoon Pyung—joong’s Column] Is nuclear war an impossible scenario? [[윤평중 칼럼] 핵전쟁, 불가능한 시나리오인가], Chosun Ilbo, September 30, 2022,

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