The Korea Herald


Among Seoul’s conservatives, calls for going nuclear grow

By Kim Arin

Published : July 4, 2024 - 18:27

    • Link copied

Reps. Yu Yong-weon (left) and Na Kyung-won (The Korea Herald-Yonhap) Reps. Yu Yong-weon (left) and Na Kyung-won (The Korea Herald-Yonhap)

More conservative leaders in Seoul are joining the hitherto fringe club of politicians calling for South Korea to get its own nuclear weapons to counter growing North Korean and other security threats facing the country.

The recurring debate, which used to take place on the peripheries of South Korean politics, is gaining traction this time in the wake of the high-profile meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

In a summit in Pyongyang last month, Putin sealed a deal with Kim that would require each side to come to the other’s aid in the event of an attack.

The new deal has alarmed Seoul to the extent the Yoon Suk Yeol administration has publicly warned of possibly walking back its policy to only provide nonlethal aid to Ukraine, depending on Russia’s next moves.

One of the lawmakers leading the debate within the ruling party is Rep. Yu Yong-weon, who sits on the National Assembly’s national defense committee.

The first-term lawmaker, who has long been a proponent of South Korea “securing potential nuclear capabilities” as he calls it, says he is working on bills that would allow the country to do just that.

He pointed out that the existing laws on nuclear power, shaped in the 1950s, fail to stipulate that the research and development of the energy shall be for peaceful purposes only -- thereby placing limits.

Citing similar laws in Japan, he explained that for South Korea to possess nuclear reprocessing technology, the country’s nuclear cooperation agreement with the US would need to be revised.

“By adding the peaceful use clause, South Korea could make the case for growing its nuclear capabilities more convincingly to the US,” he said.

Yu is joined by some big-name colleagues in the ruling party, including five-time Rep. Na Kyung-won, who is also running to be the party’s next chair.

In her remarks made on the anniversary of the breakout of the Korean War, Na said that it was “time for South Korea to go nuclear,” given the ever-amplifying nuclear threats from North Korea.

“We cannot depend on the good will of others, including the US, to safeguard our national security,” she said at a forum she hosted Monday on the nuclear armament debate, referring to the possible return of former US President Donald Trump to the White House.

“If Trump returns to power, another US-North Korea summit could happen, and there are concerns that the direction of the policy in Washington may shift to freezing North Korean nuclear assets as opposed to getting rid of them,” she said.

Na said she was echoing the point earlier raised by Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who proposed nuclear burden-sharing agreements with South Korea and other allies. Wicker made those remarks at the US Senate Armed Services Committee after Putin and Kim’s Pyongyang summit

At the forum, other speakers similarly raised concerns about Trump potentially withdrawing or reducing US troops from South Korea, based on his previous comments.

The South Korean government remains firm that extended deterrence with the US is the only and sure way to deter North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

“The South Korea-US extended deterrence is working, and we see it as the default way to respond to threats and provocations from North Korea. That is where we stand,” a Seoul Defense Ministry official said, when asked to comment on the points being raised among politicians.

In response to reporter questions about her calls deviating from the government's stance, Na said that it was “the role of politics to raise public awareness and initiate debate before there can be a change in policy.”

At the National Assembly, advocates of a nuclear-armed South Korea, while more outspoken than before, are still far from the mainstream.

Even among the ruling party, lawmakers with a diplomatic background such as Rep. Kim Gunn have voiced concerns about the concept of a country pursuing nuclear ambitions and breaking the nonproliferation principle.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea says the nuclear comments from the ruling party are damaging to the nation’s security interests. “The front-runners for the ruling party’s new leadership seem like they are bent on destroying the prospects of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” the party said in a statement.

Outside of politics, some in the intelligence community here perceive the threats posed by the closer connection between Russia and North Korea to be serious enough for South Korea to mull arming itself with nuclear weapons.

In a rare move, the National Intelligence Service-run Institute for National Security Strategy said in a report issued a day after the Putin-Kim summit that South Korea should “review the need for acquiring nuclear weapons or such nuclear capabilities.”

The NIS think tank in the report urged the South Korean government to consider building the country’s own nuclear weapons or seek alternatives such as nuclear sharing arrangements with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“The idea of possibly building South Korean nuclear capabilities should at least enter public debate,” it said.