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ConflictsSouth Korea

South Korea eyes nuclear arms as North allies with Russia

July 2, 2024

South Koreans are increasingly leaning toward an independent nuclear capability as the bond strengthens between Moscow and Pyongyang, and questions over the US's commitment to the country's security grow.

An image released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile by North Korea
North Korea has continued to conduct missile tests despite being prohibited by the UN from testing and facing sanctions for advancing its nuclear capabilitiesImage: KCNA/AFP

As many as 66% of South Koreans believe that the nation needs to develop and deploy an independent nuclear deterrent, up from 60.2% of the public last year. 

Analysts say the spike in support for a domestic nuclear capability is a consequence of a newly belligerent North Korea, which signed a security treaty with Russia in June, and uncertainty over a future US administration's commitment to the South's security.

The opinion poll was conducted by the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification and published on June 27, just nine days after Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The Kim-Putin meeting concluded with a treaty that includes a commitment by the countries to come to each other's assistance if either is attacked.

Though there was no mention of exchanging weapons, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has drawn Moscow closer to Pyongyang, as Western powers have stepped up sanctions against Russia.

Putin's North Korea visit deepens alliance against US-led global order

Russia-North Korea ties stoke concerns

The North has reportedly provided millions of artillery shells and short-range missiles to Putin's hard-pressed troops in Ukraine. 

In return, it has received Russian fuel in amounts beyond limits specified in UN sanctions, food supplies and technology for nuclear, missile and space programs.

Pyongyang has denied reports that it has supplied weapons to Russia.

The increasingly close relationship between Pyongyang and Moscow has triggered alarm in Seoul, said Han Dong-hoon, a politician who is expected to stand for the leadership of the ruling People Power Party in the future.

"As the international situation can always change, we should move at least to the point of equipping ourselves with potential capabilities to go nuclear whenever we decide to do so," Yonhap News quoted Han as saying in the National Assembly on June 25.

"Strengthening national security with a nuclear force is necessary for sure," Han said. "The global security situation is constantly changing, so there are limitations on relying solely on our allies."

On the same day, the Korea Times published an editorial headlined "Explore Nuclear Options," in which it highlighted the increasing hostility of Russia and the belligerence of North Korea, apparently emboldened by its alliance with Moscow.

US, Japan, South Korea hold East Asia military drills

Fluid international situation

On Monday, Pyongyang ramped up the tension in the region once again by launching two ballistic missiles, one of which appeared to malfunction in flight.

North Korea is prohibited from testing ballistic projectiles by the UN and faces several sanctions for advancing its nuclear capabilities. 

Still, the reclusive nation continues to conduct missile tests.

On Tuesday, it announced that its military would conduct another launch of the same type of missile in July to test the "explosion power" of the super-large warhead, KCNA said.

This is a rare disclosure of a planned missile launch.

Despite the rising tensions and the danger posed by the North, the nuclear plan does not enjoy universal support in the South.

The leading opposition Democratic Party described the proposal as "irresponsible and extremely dangerous," while an editorial in the Korea JoongAng Daily on June 27 said the nation would pay a "high price for arming itself with nuclear weapons."

Dangerous tit-for-tat on the Korean Peninsula

Debate nuclear capabilities

Lim Eun-jung, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University, told DW that many South Koreans believe they were blocked in the past from developing an atomic deterrent by the United States, which wanted to avoid nuclear proliferation.

"North Korea has continued to polish its nuclear capability, especially since the failed 2019 summit in Hanoi, and there are people who believe it cannot be balanced by the conventional weapons we have in the South," she said.

"They believe we have to balance the North's nuclear weapons with our own because the alliance with the US is not a 100% guarantee against the North launching a nuclear attack," she added.

Lim, however, said she was personally opposed to an independent nuclear deterrent in the South "because the Korea-US alliance is enough to effectively deter the North from using nuclear weapons."

"I also fear that it could cause a domino effect on other countries in the region and the collapse of the nuclear nonproliferation regime," she said.

Park Jung-won, a professor of international Law at Dankook University, told DW that the government of President Yoon Suk-yeol must consider Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election in November as a given and therefore "consider various options, including nuclear options, to protect national security against North Korea."

Park said all agreements with the present US administration "could be fundamentally weakened or even nullified with the reelection of Trump, so the South Korean government should proactively address this chaotic situation to express its stance."

One way to address the debate would be to hold a referendum with a simple yes-no vote, he said.

Park also played down the likelihood of retaliatory sanctions by other countries.

He said governments around the world "will recognize that South Korea has the right to protect itself and its people" from its unpredictable and nuclear-armed neighbor.

Why North Korea is more dangerous than ever

'Fear of abandonment'

Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, told DW that a referendum "would ignore the complexities of the issue" and potentially undermine the existing alliance with the United States, which is built upon the US nuclear umbrella.

"It is clear why this is being discussed at the moment," he said. "There is a fear of abandonment by its closest military ally and questions about US extended deterrence, meaning that some people concluding that the South having its own nuclear weapons would provide greater security."

Pinkston underlined that much depends on the US election in November.

"If confidence in the US as a partner is severely undermined," Pinkston said, "then the instability that we already see in the world will become worse."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea