Seoul, South Korea
South Korea doesn’t need nuclear weapons to deter the threat from North Korea, the country’s prime minister, Han Duck-soo, said in an exclusive interview with CNN — even as public opinion swings the other way amid the the accelerating arms race in Asia.
Several recent public inquiries “have clearly shown that we need to re-arm. In terms of nuclear capability, we should (according to the studies) go further,” Han told CNN host and general editor. Richard Quest during a sit-down in Seoul.
One such poll, published last February, found that 71% of the more than 1,300 respondents in the country favored South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons – a once unthinkable idea that has become increasingly mainstream over the past decade, with tensions rising on the Korean peninsula and confidence in South Korea declining towards US protection. .
However, Han insisted that the country has enough in its arsenal to stave off North Korea’s “ridiculous ambitions” – and that developing nuclear capabilities was not “the right way”.
“We have built up a fairly adequate level of our deterrence capabilities in close cooperation with the United States,” he said, adding that the government had “placed a lot of emphasis” on strengthening its deterrence since President Yoon Suk Yeol came to power last year came. .
“We need to work with the international community… to continually put a lot of pressure on North Korea to denuclearize,” he said. “We want to inform North Korea that developing and improving nuclear capabilities does not guarantee peace and prosperity in their country.”
Relations between North and South Korea have deteriorated in recent years as Pyongyang ramped up its weapons program and last year fired a record number of missiles — including one that flew over Japan, the first time North Korea had done so in five years, sparking international alarm. caused .
And for months, the US and international observers have been warning that North Korea appears to be preparing for its first underground nuclear test since 2017. The country’s dictator Kim Jong-un also intensified his rhetoric last year; he declared his intention to build “the most powerful” nuclear power in the world, warned opponents that North Korea was fully prepared for a “real war,” vowed to “never give up” nuclear weapons, and rejected the possibility of negotiating denuclearization.
In response, the US and its allies South Korea and Japan have intensified their own military exercises and cooperation. Yoon, who has publicly spoken out harshly against North Korea, has even raised the prospect of South Korea building its own nuclear arsenal, saying in January that it “could deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own nuclear weapons” .
And while Han opposed such a plan, he also emphasized South Korea’s readiness to confront its nuclear-armed neighbor — as well as its openness to further talks, subject to certain conditions.
“We are not disarming against North Korea,” he said. “But we are not closing the channel of dialogue with North Korea…as long as North Korea refrains from their very strong nuclear ambitions.”
Kim Jong Un is calling for an “exponential” increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal
Han also discussed China’s role in the region, saying the superpower “wasn’t the country it used to be,” ushering in economic reform and liberalization in recent decades.
“China is a huge and important global player,” he said. “Including Korea, I think many countries would like to see (China) more compliant with global rules.”
He added that while China “will contribute a lot to solving global problems”, it often falls short of the “expectations that many countries would like to have – for example, we hoped that China would be more aggressive and active in reducing the tensions on the Korean peninsula.”
China has long been North Korea’s largest trading partner and an economic lifeline, while Pyongyang has been isolated from much of the world.
But Beijing is also an important player in the Asian arms race.
In January, US and Japanese ministers warned of the “continued and accelerated expansion of (China’s) nuclear arsenal”. Just days later, Japan’s prime minister expressed concern over China’s military activities in the East China Sea and the launch of ballistic missiles over Taiwan that landed in waters near Japan in August.
China’s military buildup, aggressive foreign policy and multiple disputed territorial claims have not gone unnoticed in Seoul, where attitudes towards Beijing are rapidly souring.
In the 2022 survey on South Korean nuclear armaments, more than half of respondents said China would pose the biggest threat to the country in 10 years, with many citing “threats other than North Korea” behind their support for a domestic nuclear arsenal.
Han acknowledged that Seoul was closely monitoring these territorial disputes.
“Peace in the Taiwan Strait is also very important for the security and peace of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. And while South Korea is “committed” to the one China policy, he said, “at the same time, we expect China to be more rule-based, not to behave like a country … condemned by the international community.”