Why do some South Koreans want their own atomic bomb?

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Seoul, South Korea – Hours after US President Joe Biden left Tokyo after a five-day trip to Japan and South Korea last week, officials in Seoul sounded the alarm over the launch of a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile test from North Korea.

If confirmed, the launch of an ICBM – a weapon that can reach the continental US – will mark Pyongyang’s second such missile test this year. With denuclearization talks stalled, the governments of South Korea and the US are also warning that the impoverished country may be preparing for a nuclear test — the first in five years and the seventh in total.

On the streets of Seoul, however, most South Koreans shrugged their shoulders at the latest launches. In Myeondong, the bustling center of the city, Kim Min-yi, a 49-year-old housewife, said the north’s intensified testing was “their way of saying ‘we need help’ or ‘let’s talk'”. Lee Yun-yi, a Catholic nun, said it looked like a “desperate gesture” for help with the country’s sanctions-induced economic crisis and the first confirmed COVID-19 outbreak.

Although they resigned from the North’s growing nuclear and missile arsenal, most people said they wanted President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office on May 10, to respond decisively.

“We have to be strict in our response, but at the same time we have to be careful not to encourage further provocations,” said Chae Soon-ok, an academic. “I think South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons – not to carry out an attack, but for national defense.”

Park Jung-bin, a 23-year-old college student, agreed.

“Why do we let our enemy upgrade their main weapon?” she asked. “South Korea has been confronted by North Korea for decades. We’ve tried to talk to them, but the North continues to test its nuclear weapons. Owning a nuclear weapon is more efficient. ‘Eye for an eye tooth for a tooth’.”

The views of Chae and Park, once a subject for the political fringe in South Korea, are increasingly mainstream, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. A poll by the US-based think tank in February found that a whopping 71 percent of South Koreans are in favor of acquiring their own nuclear weapon — especially as North Korea has continued to develop its weapons program in the face of global sanctions and censorship. .

From larger weapons intended for strategic use, North Korea has now developed tactical weapons that can be used on the battlefield, “with low yields and less nuclear fallout and that allow them to attack South Korea and also Japan,” said Jaechun Kim. , a professor of international relations at Sogang University in South Korea.

“This is all the more problematic because the North has developed all kinds of vehicles, both long-range and short-range missiles, that can bring these nuclear weapons to South Korea,” he said. While South Korea “remains highly vulnerable, unfortunately it largely relies on extensive deterrence from the US,” he added, citing a pledge by Washington — the South’s main security ally — to keep its nuclear , conventional and defense capabilities to deter attacks. on his allies.

Will the US risk LA for Seoul?

The US has maintained its formal deterrent obligation to South Korea since it intervened in the 1950-53 Korean War to push back invading forces from the north.

It also deployed tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean territory in 1958 to deter new attacks, but withdrew them in 1991 as part of an effort to convince Pyongyang to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities. At the time, Washington pledged to protect the South — which had given up its own nuclear ambitions and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) — using nuclear bombers and submarines in the Pacific and continental US.

But now, with the North’s ever-expanding nuclear and missile capabilities, analysts say there are “continuing doubts” in South Korea whether the US’s deterrence strategy is good enough to defend the country — especially as North Korea now claims a “second-strike” retaliatory capability against the US.

“Many South Koreans suspect ‘whether the US will risk Los Angeles to save Seoul,'” Kim said. “So my view is that unless there’s something more substantial — like redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea — there will be a constant demand from many South Koreans to develop our own nuclear weapons.”

The United States and South Korea will hold joint training exercises in May. South Koreans increasingly question whether US support is enough to secure their defenses [South Korea Defence Ministry via AP Photo]

Yoon, the South Korean president, had said during the campaign that he would ask the US to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the country. He has since returned, confirming in a joint statement following Biden’s visit his commitment to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. But the pair also agreed to expand the scope and scope of their military exercises to deter North Korea.

And after the May 25 missile salvo in Pyongyang, the US and South Korean armies fired their own missiles to demonstrate their “ability and willingness to deal with the origins of the provocation with overwhelming force”.

Still, some South Koreans now believe after the policies of former US President Donald Trump — who raised questions about Washington’s commitment to South Korea’s defense, including by demanding that Seoul pay billions of dollars more to support the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there – pursuing an independent defense strategy, rather than relying on a third country’s “nuclear umbrella”.

“I think Korea should try to strengthen national defenses by developing new weapons, but this should exclude US aid. We must look for ways to strengthen security without involving third countries,” said a 25-year-old man who recently finished his compulsory military service. “We should have our own nuclear weapons.”

Others walking around Seoul’s waterfront, Yeouido Park, also said acquiring a nuclear weapon would boost South Korea’s international reputation and prestige. “Since South Korea is stuck between powerful countries like China, Russia and Japan, our priority is to strengthen national defenses,” said Jung Yoo-jin, a 21-year-old college student. “Korea should start to have its own weapons as South Korea is now one of the strongest economic countries in the world,” said Lee Mee Yun, 22.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also hardened attitudes toward nuclear weapons, said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in the US.

“The situation in Ukraine reminds you that you are ultimately on your own. I mean, if someone invades you, you have to defend yourself and others. Even allies of the treaty may think twice before endangering their own people, their own troops,” he said.

“The broad international environment, the Russian war in Ukraine, and North Korean’s growing nuclear capabilities and threats all point to the logical conclusion in South Korea, you’d think that, hey, can we really rely on American deterrence? Or, just in case, should we come up with a plan B, which is … nuclear?”

“I think we’re moving more and more on that trajectory.”



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