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[News Focus] Debate on South Korea’s nuke armament reignited

Debate has resurfaced over the possibility of South Korea’s nuclear armament as North Korea’s nuclear threat remains unabated with growing security rivalry in the region most recently stoked by Japan’s push for heavier armament.

Lingering doubts over the reliability of the U.S.’ nuclear umbrella has also added to the possibility that Seoul could seek a more viable way to bolster its self-defense capabilities to fend off Pyongyang’s security challenges, analysts said.

Charles Ferguson, head of the Federation of American Scientists, said in a recent report that the South could opt for nuclear armament should Japan acquire nuclear arms and should the North’s nuclear threats not be countered by the U.S.

“If the United States were perceived to not be able to reliably and credibly counter the threats posed by China and North Korea, prudent military planners in Japan and South Korea would want to take steps to have their own nuclear capabilities,” Ferguson said in the report.

“Finally, if Japan crosses the threshold to nuclear weapon acquisition, South Korea would feel compelled to follow suit. South Korean leaders would then not want to be vulnerable to both nuclear-armed North Korea and Japan.”

In the report, Ferguson also noted that Seoul could secure potential capabilities to produce dozens of nuclear warheads within five years, with “near-weapons-grade plutonium” from four pressurized heavy water reactors at its Wolseong power plant in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang province.

The report came amid a lingering debate over South Korea’s “nuclear sovereignty” and its nonproliferation commitment. The debate remained intense until after Seoul signed a revised civilian atomic energy accord with Washington last month. Seoul officials said the accord paved the way for more efficient use of nuclear energy in South Korea.

Despite the talk of South Korea’s possible nuclear armament, most experts said it remains unlikely that Seoul will pursue nuclear arms given that any damage to the current Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty would seriously strain ties with Washington and drive Seoul into diplomatic isolation.

“For nuclear armament, a national leader should decide to break away from the NPT regime and should be ready to accept international criticism and isolation,” said a security expert, who requested anonymity.

“South Korean leaders, politicians and officials are not and will not be willing to take that risk. Considering that the U.S. is pushing for its vision of a “nuclear-free” world, South Korea, a staunch ally of the U.S., will not make a decision that undermines that vision.”

South Korea once pursued nuclear armament in the 1970s. Former President Park Chung-hee secretly pushed to develop nuclear weapons as security concerns rose, with Washington seeking to withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula.

Concerns over the North’s nuclear threats have been escalating as the communist state continues to improve its nuclear weapons capabilities including its technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads to mount on long-range missiles.

Amid Pyongyang’s technological advancement, no talks over Pyongyang’s denuclearization have been held since December 2008, which has further deepened security jitters surrounding the North’s nuclear adventurism.

Some observers presume that in the case of the U.S. being unable to stably provide “extended deterrence,” Seoul may have to pursue nuclear armament for its national survival. Extended deterrence refers to the U.S. commitment to defend the South against the North’s conventional and nuclear threats.

By Song Sang-ho (
catch table
Korea Herald daum