Experts Support S.Korea's Nuclear Armament

  • By Nina Pasquini, Chosun Ilbo intern reporter

    July 19, 2022 13:20

    The idea of the South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons was once unthinkable in global policy circles, but recently it has been gaining traction both here and in the U.S.

    After decades of failed attempts to denuclearize North Korea, analysts predict that officials in both countries will become more accepting of the idea.

    At this year's Asian Leadership Conference hosted by the Chosun Ilbo in Seoul last week, three experts on North Korea and security issues discussed the reasons why the nuclear armament is becoming increasingly likely.

    "The possibility of an independent South Korean nuclear arsenal is not a popular direction within circles in Washington," said Daryl Press, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. "The U.S. is strongly committed to the nonproliferation treaty, and the U.S. strongly prefers that allies and adversaries alike refrain from nuclear spread."

    Participants attend the annual Asian Leadership Conference at Hotel Shilla in Seoul on July 13.

    But speakers cited several factors that they believe that could change.

    For one, South Korea faces a uniquely dangerous threat from the nuclear-armed North, which claims sovereignty over South Korea, and has demonstrated a profound lack of concern for human rights.

    "If the North Koreans had toned down their rhetoric, it might have been possible to get around this question," said Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University.

    The conditions of South Korea's alliance with the U.S. are also different from when it was first created in 1953. "The rise of China is driving a subtle wedge between American and South Korean priorities," Press said. "The increased range of North Korean nuclear capabilities has resulted in increased cost and risk to the U.S. to protect its South Korean partner."

    North Korea's ability to strike the U.S. has raised the question of whether the U.S. would trade "Los Angeles for Seoul," Kelly said. "Honestly, no, I don't think the Americans would fight a nuclear war solely for another country," he added.

    Another factor is "uncertain trends in U.S. politics," Press said.

    Kelly recalled that former President Donald Trump showed a distinct distaste for the alliance, and under his administration joint military exercises were dramatically scaled back. "If Trump returns in 2025 and tries to pull out the U.S. Forces Korea, in my view the chances of nuclear armament go up substantially," Kelly said.

    Press laid out some possible paths. South Korea could announce to the international community that it plans to legally obtain nuclear weapons by pulling out of the nonproliferation treaty due to the unique threat it faces from North Korea, but that it would reconsider if North Korea considered denuclearization.

    "Acquiring nuclear weapons is justified ethically and legally," Press said. "It also doesn't set South Korea on an irreversible path," and it can reconsider its decision depending on changing circumstances.

    If South Kora made the decision to develop nuclear arms, it could do so relatively quickly, according to Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute. Cheong predicted it could take as little as two years.

    "If the U.S. is to be a liberal alliance leader, it has to allow its allies options, rather than the Americans hegemonically dictating that Koreans can't debate this," Kelly said.

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