Amidst increasing fears about North Korea’s nuclear reality, South Korea has witnessed retaliatory public sentiment in favour of the nation going nuclear. South Korea has followed the policy of non-proliferation as a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. However, as a result of growing security fears and challenges to the balance of power in the peninsula, debates have been reignited about the development of nuclear arms by many across South Korea.
While South Korea enjoys the extended nuclear protection by the United States, the zero sum game between the North and the South along with US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s willingness to withdraw from its long-standing partnership with Seoul have raised fears about the viability of the US nuclear umbrella. Won Yoo-chul of the ruling Saenuri Party has increasingly advocated for a nuclear South Korea, claiming “we cannot borrow [nuclear] umbrellas from next door every time it rains. We should wear a raincoat of our own.” “If North Korea conducts a fifth nuclear test, South Korea should immediately move to arm itself with nuclear capabilities,” Won Yoo-chul added, according to Yonhap News Agency. “The existing policies are insufficient to stop the North’s technology development,” he said. Conservative South Korean academic Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute has also reportedly asserted, “In the face of North Korea’s growing nuclear threats, [the] time has come for the South to consider the issue of nuclear armament for self-defense.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that a poll by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, 67.7 percent favored the South having nuclear weapons, as reported by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Increasing calls for the development of nuclear arms by Seoul have promoted fears about its domino effect across Asia. According to the security dilemma, any action by Seoul intended to heighten its security by developing its nuclear capability can lead to other Asian nations, especially Japan, to respond with similar measures, producing increased tensions that create conflict. According to a senior official in the Seoul government, North Korea’s repeated defiance of several security council resolutions and the non-proliferation regime will create “a domino effect and even South Korea will become concerned and develop nuclear weapons, and maybe Japan as well” . “This will all lead to a big security threat,” the director-general for reunification policy in the Ministry of Unification, Lee Duk-haeng, told Fairfax Media. However, the development of long range missiles by Pyongyang means that the issue “is no longer an issue within the Korean peninsula” . “For Australia this is not a distant problem,” he added.
In March, the UN Security Council has declared the toughest sanctions against North Korea. However, concerns about its enforceability by China, Pyongyang’s only ally and dominant trading partner, remain. Ninety percent of Pyongyang’s trade occurs with its neighbour, Beijing. As a response to North Korea launching one Scud and two No Dong missiles and announcing a practice drill for pre-emptive nuclear attacks on South Korea and U.S. forces based in Japan, Guam, and in the western Pacific, Seoul agreed to the deployment of the U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defence system to increase protection from North Korea’s growing missile threat. However, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, China reacted furiously to Seoul’s decision and “imposed undeclared trade sanctions on the country’s surging cultural exports, the so-called K-Wave products, in the movie, TV, and music sectors”.
While rising public sentiment in support of a nuclear South Korea have surfaced, many experts believe that these “highly publicised, pro-nuclear reactions from a small minority” provide a misleading impression of Seoul’s likelihood of pursuing its own nuclear capability. Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Instituition and Duyeon Kim, visiting senior fellow at the Korea Peninsula Future Forum believe that senior officials have firmly rejected the pursuit of nuclear weapons and few South Koreans believe their country will actually head down the military nuclear path. Ruling Saenuri Party Chairman Kim Moo-sung also claimsc that advocates of nuclear arms do not have a deep understanding of nuclear issues.
However, Seoul’s continued acceptance of nuclear non-proliferation regime cannot be taken for granted. As such, the need to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program and reassess the effectiveness of the US nuclear umbrella remains an important part of overcoming the security dilemma and promoting the principles of nuclear non-proliferation.
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