South Korea and North Korea flags and missiles

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said last week that North Korea’s recent aggression has led Seoul to consider obtaining or developing tactical nuclear weapons, which he said could happen quickly given the country’s “scientific and technological capabilities.”

The move comes as tensions in the Asia-Pacific region continue to increase.

Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN, that the trend will continue and “these dynamics” will spiral where “we have no measures of restraint, we have no arms control.”

Yoon made the comments during a policy briefing with his top military officials. The New York Times reported that South Korea has never mentioned publicly the idea of going nuclear since the U.S.’s decision to remove its nukes from the peninsula in 1991.

TRENDPOST: The Trends Journal has reported on Seoul’s new militaristic posturing. (See “SOUTH KOREA NEW GOVERNMENT= ESCALATION OF MILITARY TENSIONS.”)

We noted that Yoon’s election was seen as an indicator that Seoul would inch closer to Washington and anger China in the process. Yoon was seen as a conservative who will likely align closer to the U.S. and is expected to take on a more hawkish position against North Korea.

Yoon has also expressed interest in joining The Quad, the military alliance formed by the U.S., Australia, and Japan.

That is not to say he is alone in his suspicions over China and North Korea.

South Korean public support for nuclear weapons has generally hovered from 50 to 70 percent in the last 10 years, but that number is now well over 70 percent based on the concerns over China and North Korea. 

A report in the Council of Foreign Relations, citing a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, noted that “71 percent of South Korean respondents supported the development of a domestic nuclear weapons program due to the need to defend South Korea from threats other than North Korea (39 percent), increase the prestige of South Korea to the international community (26 percent), and counter the growing threat from North Korea (23 percent). This trend suggests that the South Korean public remains dissatisfied with efforts to date to maintain the status quo and reaffirm U.S. extended deterrence through the nuclear umbrella.”

Going Nuclear Worth it?

Seoul would join China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. as the world powers with a nuclear arsenal. We noted in November that the UN General Assembly called on Israel to get rid of its arsenal. The resolution was introduced by Egypt.

As recently as October, Seoul’s position was that it would rather rely on the U.S. military than produce its own weapons. Stripes noted that the U.S. has about 28,500 troops in South Korea, along with a Terminal High-Altitude Defense, or THAAD, a system that can intercept ballistic missiles. 

Robert Abrams, the former U.S. Forces Korea commander, joined a panel discussion hosted by The Korea Society in New York, where he expressed that a South Korean nuclear program is not needed and could create new problems.

“There’s been a lot of chatter lately about whether the Republic of Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons program—I’m not in favor of that,” Abrams said. “I think that would be a bad idea. There’s a lot of unmentioned costs that go towards building a nuclear weapons program that I’m not sure has been well thought out.”

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