South Korean Horn is Ready to Nuke Up: Daniel 7

What makes South Koreans so eager for nuclear deterrent?

70% of public favor going nuclear to counter threats from Pyongyang, Beijing

A missile is fired during joint U.S.-South Korea military drills at an undisclosed location in South Korea in May 2022. (South Korea Defense Ministry via AP)

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei senior staff writerFebruary 19, 2023 10:09 JST

TOKYO — A large majority of South Koreans support the idea of arming the country with nuclear weapons in the face of growing threats from North Korea.

Recent polls show that more than 70% of those surveyed support the deployment of nuclear arms in the country. “We must make overwhelmingly superior war preparations [to ensure peace],” said South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in December last year, echoing the public sentiment on the issue.

At a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Jan. 31 in Seoul, Yoon said he wants to see “an effective and powerful system of extended deterrence” to help dispel public concerns, basically telling the Pentagon chief that the current level of U.S. nuclear deterrence is not sufficient to counter the rising threat from North Korea. Austin replied that the U.S. will “make efforts” to gain the trust of South Koreans.

On Jan. 30, the day before the Yoon-Austin meeting, Gallup Korea released the results of a recent poll that showed 76% of respondents said the country needs to develop its own nuclear weapons, three times as many as opposed the idea. A separate survey by a private think tank, conducted in May 2022, also found 70% in support of South Korea possessing nuclear weapons.

Behind this strong support are growing concerns about North Korean intentions. Various polls indicate that 80% to 90% of South Koreans think it will not be possible to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula anytime soon, given the North’s intransigence.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, right, greets U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a meeting in Seoul on Jan. 31. (South Korea Presidential Office/Yonhap via AP)

Compared with Japan, the only country ever hit by atomic bombs, South Korea has few qualms about acquiring a nuclear deterrent. With North Korea hinting at the possible use of tactical nuclear arms, many South Koreas think that it is futile to try to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arms, and that it is best to respond to nuclear threats with nuclear weapons of its own.

It is not just when conservatives are in power that the public has shown strong interest in a nuclear deterrent. In a survey result published by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-backed think tank, in late 2021 — when liberal President Moon Jae-in was in office — 71% of South Koreans backed the idea of the country going nuclear.

There is also growing public wariness of China. According to a joint survey conducted in Japan and South Korea between July and August 2022 by Tokyo-based nonprofit The Genron NPO and others, nearly two in three South Koreans said they see China as a “military threat.” A survey taken in February through June of the same year by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found that 80% of respondents had negative views of China.

Given the country’s painful history of exploitation and oppression by foreign powers, both liberals and conservatives tend to seek greater self-reliance in defense, with many seeing nuclear weapons as an effective means of ensuring national sovereignty and survival. Unlike many other countries, liberals tend to be more nationalistic than conservatives in South Korea.

Some South Koreans also remain distrustful of the U.S. In fact, many still talk about the Katsura-Taft agreement of 1905 and the Acheson line of 1950. The former refers to a secret accord reached between Japanese Prime Minister Taro Katsura and U.S. Secretary of War William Taft that ceded control of the Korean Peninsula to Japan in exchange for its pledge not to interfere in the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. Many see the agreement as a precursor to Japan’s annexation of the peninsula in 1910.

The Acheson line refers to a strategic defense line mentioned by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950. Acheson said the peninsula would fall outside the U.S. defense line, a comment that some believe triggered the invasion of South Korea by Pyongyang, which took his words as a sign of Washington’s reluctance to defend the South.

In the 1970s, South Korea, which still lagged the North in terms of military power, embarked on a covert nuclear weapons development program under President Park Chung-hee, who feared that the U.S. would abandon South Korea at some point.

Seoul dropped the project in the face of strong objections from Washington. Yet a half-century later North Korea’s drive to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of targeting the entire U.S. mainland is fueling concern about American willingness to risk its security to protect South Korea. Yoon’s recent statement regarding nuclear arms reflects public concern about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Earlier this year, Yoon said South Korea may have to consider acquiring its own nuclear deterrent if the North further escalates its nuclear provocations. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration quickly denied that the U.S. had any plan to reintroduce nuclear weapons into South Korea, as it continues to push for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The U.S., which deployed nuclear weapons to the country in 1958, withdrew them in 1991.

Biden is also critical of the idea of South Korea developing its own nuclear arms. In response, Yoon said he would seek “a realistically possible option.”

North Korea shows off missiles during a military parade in Pyongyang on Feb. 8. (KCNA via Reuters)   

Based on an accord between Seoul and Washington, South Korean forces will come under U.S. operational command in a military emergency. The alliance would probably collapse if Seoul pursues nuclear development in the face of U.S. opposition. Yoon is unlikely to risk that possibility, many pundits say.

On Jan. 31, Austin and his South Korean counterpart, Lee Jong-sup, reaffirmed that the U.S. will continue working to strengthen its extended deterrence. Austin said the U.S. would deploy more advanced tactical weapons to South Korea, including F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. But he disappointed South Korean officials, who had hoped he would mention giving Seoul a role in the operation of U.S. nuclear forces under a “nuclear-sharing” arrangement, or starting “routine” and “continuous” stationing of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in waters around the Korean Peninsula.

Washington and Seoul continue to tread a fine diplomatic line: While Yoon does not hide his interest in obtaining nuclear arms, the U.S. has refrained from criticizing him harshly, showing some understanding of South Korean sentiment, as demonstrated by Austin.

While engaging in a tug of war over nuclear issues, Washington and Seoul are well aware of the impact such talks could have on Beijing, which is increasingly concerned about the prospects of “nuclear dominoes” falling in East Asia, the potential for nuclear proliferation from South Korea to Taiwan to Japan.

It seems the tussle between the U.S. and South Korea has also had an effect on North Korea, which has stepped up its nuclear and missile development programs, but has so far refrained from holding a seventh nuclear test.

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