Debate over S. Korea’s nuclear option resurfaces amid NK’s continuing threats

President Yoon Suk Yeol and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden shake hands during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, in this April 26, 2023 photo. EPA-Yonhap

The debate over South Korea’s nuclear option is resurfacing in the face of North Korea advancing its nuclear and missile programs. Some politicians and academics are becoming more vocal about their belief that South Korea should possess nuclear weapons for self-defense.Those who support Seoul’s nuclear option say the United States’ extended deterrence may weaken as Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities become more sophisticated.In April last year, South Korea and the U.S. signed the Washington Declaration, which highlights Washington’s enhanced commitment to its extended deterrence offered to Seoul against Pyongyang’s evolving nuclear threats. Both agreed to form a Nuclear Consultative Group, through which the two sides will discuss nuclear and strategic planning in response to North Korea’s possible attack.However, South Korea cannot rely on security promises from the U.S. in perpetuity because the Washington Declaration is a mere agreement between President Yoon and President Biden, Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Sejong Institute, noted.”It may no longer be effective if the U.S. president changes. Also, a declaration doesn’t have a legally binding effect,” Cheong said.He added that the U.S. is more concerned about restraining China than North Korea, and thus, South Korea should not depend entirely on the U.S. extended deterrence.

“Relying on the goodwill of the U.S. president in the face of North Korea’s blatant nuclear threats is dangerous,” he said.According to Cheong, U.S. public opinion has steadily turned against defending South Korea. According to a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in September 2023, only 50 percent of respondents favored using U.S. troops to defend South Korea in the event of an invasion, down from 63 percent in 2021 and 55 percent last year.Kwak Gil-sup, the president of One Korea Center and adjunct professor at Kookmin University’s Unification and Convergence Program, said South Korea should seriously consider building its own nuclear weapons in time as the North’s threats of using tactical nuclear weapons are becoming increasingly explicit.”We should prepare for the post-Biden era. It’s too late to start discussing South Korea’s nuclear option if Trump is re-elected,” Kwak said.He noted that Yoon has made considerable progress in seeking extended deterrence against North Korea, but South Korea needs to gain further nuclear assurances from the U.S. or otherwise consider its own nuclear option.”The U.S. has opposed the idea of South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons because of its commitment (to the Non-Proliferation Treaty) and the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” Kwak said.”However, situations change. North Korea has put us in a more dangerous place since last year when the Camp David summit took place and missile capabilities became more advanced. So we should not settle for the way things are right now, but seek further nuclear assurances from allies and acquire nuclear 메이저 weapons.”

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