Since South Korean President Moon Jae-in reactivated his progressive predecessors’ peace process on the Korean Peninsula, an arms build-up has been off Moon’s table. However, nuclear talks and inter-Korean dialogues have not made substantive progress, having stalled since the failed Hanoi summit in 2019. As a result, South Koreans now support developing the country’s own nuclear weapons amid North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities.
According to a poll released by the Chicago Council on Monday, 71 percent of respondents are in favor of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons while 56 percent support deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to the South’s soil. However, the poll made clear that the responders “overwhelmingly prefer an independent arsenal (67%) over US deployment (9%)” when asked to choose between the two options. This implies that South Koreans want their country to beef up its self-defense capabilities and be more independent from the U.S. military assets.
South Koreans still have confidence in the military alliance with the United States, but former U.S. President Donald Trump showed the vulnerable position of the South by mentioning reducing the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea during the negotiations for the Special Measures Agreement in 2020. With that in mind, South Koreans believe the country should invest more resources and money to develop its own powerful weapons.
The poll found that 40 percent of South Koreans oppose the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons, while just 26 percent oppose building a domestic nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, 82 percent believe North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, implying South Koreans are looking to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense against the North’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities.
Under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), however, South Korea will not be able to develop its nuclear weapons nor redeploy the U.S. nuclear weapons on the South’s soil. Any move toward nuclearization by Seoul would also have ramifications for the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
South Korean conservatives have previously proposed that country go nuclear and redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the South’s soil. However, the U.S. has never seriously considered such proposals, believing such a move would only help legitimize North Korea’s own nuclear program. South Korean progressives also have criticized any discussion of nuclear weapons, saying an arms build-up would only provoke another war while reiterating the importance of promoting peace through dialogue.
However, Washington and Seoul have failed to entice Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons despite diplomatic overtures, including historic summit meetings from 2018 to 2019. The results of the poll show the possibility of South Koreans becoming more hawkish on North Korea issues as time goes by.
“I believe North Korea’s missile tests are no longer threatening South Koreans anymore,” Kang Hyun-seok, a company worker in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “I think South Koreans now think that the diplomatic overtures can only succeed when South Korea be a more powerful country with nuclear missile technologies, considering how North Korea treated South Korea in the nuclear talks.”
The U.S. withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, showing a clear message from both Washington and Seoul on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As a follow-up measure, high-ranking officials of the two Koreas signed an agreement for the joint declaration of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in January 1992. North Korea submitted its initial report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under its Safeguards Agreement in May 1992. However, after the IAEA found out that there was a clear mismatch between its findings and Pyongyang’s initial declaration on the North’s plutonium products and nuclear waste solution, North Korea expressed its strong hostility on IAEA requests to access nuclear sites and eventually withdrew from the IAEA in June 1994.
Consequentially, North Korea has never seriously considered giving up its nuclear weapons. The North also withdrew from the NPT in January 2003 to keep strengthening its nuclear capabilities outside of the inspections and regulations of the IAEA and NPT.
North Korea conducted seven missile tests last month. The final test involved the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, the largest missile North Korea has test-fired since launching its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017. As experts expect North Korea to test more advanced ballistic missiles in the coming months, the next South Korean president – who is going to take office in May – could face growing demands from South Koreans to develop nuclear weapons or redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to cope with North Korea’s possible military provocations.
Given the circumstances, the next president – whether that’s the ruling Democratic Party’s presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung or the conservative People Power Party’s presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol – should first coordinate with Washington to develop South Korea’s own advanced missile systems, such as nuclear-powered submarines to strengthen asymmetric warfare capabilities. Despite the increasing public support, South Korea cannot develop nuclear weapons; instead, the U.S. should support South Korea’s initiatives to strengthen its self-defense capabilities by developing domestic defense and missile systems.