North Korea’s underground nuclear test has prompted hard-line conservatives in South Korea to press the case for Seoul's own nuclear armament.
“As a sovereign nation under nuclear threat from its main enemy, I think (nuclear armament) is most certainly justified,” said Rep. Won Yu-cheol, a four-term lawmaker in the Saenuri Party, in a radio interview when asked if South Korea should develop nuclear weapons of its own.
“Now that North Korea is armed with a nuclear weapon and long-range missiles, no matter how powerful our conventional weapons are, there is a limitation (to our defense capabilities).”
A public opinion poll by Mono Research conducted the day after Pyongyang’s nuclear test found that 51.2 percent of the people favored South Korea’s nuclear armament, 35.1 percent that both North and South Korea should forego with nuclear weapons capability, while only 8.3 percent responded that the nuclear weapons of the U.S. were sufficient to preclude the need for South Korea’s own nuclear weapons.
In addition, 42.7 percent of the respondents said that they consider the nuclear test “to be a very serious situation” and feel “serious military threat.”
The conservative party chairman Hwang Woo-yea also said during a meeting of high-ranking party officials convened following North Korea’s nuclear test that “we can no longer rely on dialogue anymore, and it is of paramount importance that the military balance on the Korean Peninsula be preserved.”
During an interpellation session at the National Assembly on Thursday, Minister Kim Sung-hwan of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade conceded that in some areas of unconventional military capability, such as nuclear, biological, chemical warfare, “North Korea has surpassed us.”
Members of the conservative Saenuri Party stressed containing North Korea’s nuclear threat and cooperating with the international community to pressure Pyongyang while members of the progressive Democratic United Party urged dialogue to prevent worsening of the crisis.
“Considering how North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons has become an established fact, and Japan’s position is to adopt defense capabilities equal in force, we are the only ones whose hands are empty under the nuclear shadow of North Korea, placed in a desperate situation where all we can do is use our (voices) to seek (international) cooperation and response,” said Rep. Lee Myeong-soo of the Saenuri Party.
“Under the existing policy, we cannot control North Korea’s nuclear provocation. We must quickly establish realistic North Korean policy, and reorganize government’s policy and direction of response to North Korea’s nuclear threat thus far.”
Rep. Cho Myeong-cheol from the same party also urged a stringent response to Pyongyang’s provocations, characterizing the nuclear test as a challenge to “all humanity” and as an act that forestalls its path to becoming a stable member of the international community.
“Instead of a punishment in name only, now is the time to crack down on North Korea’s provocative ambitions,” said Cho. “Resolutions on North Korea should target actual areas where North Korea would be hurt.”
Cho added that it was the possession of nuclear weapons that gave North Korea the confidence to provoke South Korea over the past several years. In 2008, a North Korean soldier shot and killed a 53-year-old South Korean female tourist who trespassed into a military zone near Geumgangsan Mountain, and in 2010, North Korean artillery ravaged a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians.
Across the political aisle, lawmakers focused on relating the failures of the present administration’s North Korea policy that has led to the crisis.
“It was the Lee Myung-bak administration’s North Korean policy that demolished the trust between North and South Koreas carefully built over the past decade, that pushed the Korean peninsula towards heightened alert and confrontations, and that has led to the present crisis,” said DUP Rep. Jung Cheong-rae.
Jung urged that South Korea should continue engagement with the North to alleviate the heightened tension following the nuclear test.
Rep. Choo Mi-ae from the same party also stressed that doing away with the Sunshine Policy of the past progressive administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun has led to the present crisis.
The prime minister responded that while the Sunshine Policy amounted to a “meaningful attempt” improving relations with Pyongyang, the reclusive state nevertheless “went its own way” in developing its nuclear program.
Rep. Chung Mong-joon, who was sent as a special envoy to U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008 by President Lee, also argued that “we must persuade the U.S. that if North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons, we must also be equipped with minimum self-defense capability.” During last year’s unsuccessful bid to win his party’s presidential nomination, Chung presented South Korea’s nuclear armament as a major campaign pledge.
Meanwhile, senior leaders in the opposition camp have criticized such rhetoric for nuclear armament.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Park Ji-won, the former chief of staff to President Kim Dae-jung and former floor leader of the DUP, in a radio interview when asked about the conservative party’s call for nuclear armament.
“If we develop nuclear weapons, then in addition to opposition from the world, Japan will also develop nuclear weapons. That would turn Northeast Asia into a nuclear stockpile room.”
The DUP furthermore accused the Saenuri Party’s discussion of nuclear armament as an attempt to cover up the failure of its North Korea policy. “The Saenuri Party’s call for nuclear armament is a feeble attempt to shift the responsibility for the failures of the past five years’ North Korea policy,” said DUP spokesperson Park Yong-jin during a briefing at the National Assembly.
By Samuel Songhoon Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org