Stuart Leavenworth writes: No longer sure they can rely on the United States, an increasing number of South Korean lawmakers say their country should develop its own nuclear arsenal to deter an attack by Kim Jong Un, their belligerent neighbor to the north.
North Korea’s rapid missile advances, including successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in July and again on Friday, are reviving calls for South Korea to assert its “nuclear sovereignty.” South Koreans are wary of President Donald Trump’s isolationist rhetoric and his calls for Asian allies to shoulder more of the defense burdens borne by the U.S. military.
“Trump’s ‘America-first’ policy has triggered this kind of public sentiment,” said Moon Chung In, a top national security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae In. Trump also has wavered on his commitment to defending South Korea, he said, including suggesting during the campaign that South Korea and Japan should develop their own nuclear arsenals.
While President Moon, a liberal who took office in May, does not support calls for South Korea to join the nuclear club, polls show that a majority of South Koreans surveyed favor the idea. Support bumps higher whenever North Korea conducts a nuclear or missile test and members of South Korea’s two major conservative parties are pressing Moon to at least explore the nuclear option of developing nuclear weapons.
“They want to strike a better balance of power between South and North Korea, and I also support that position,” said Yoon Young Seok, an elected member of South Korea’s National Assembly who belongs to the conservative Liberty Korea Party. Yoon said that half of his party’s 107 lawmakers support South Korea arming itself with nuclear weapons.
Up until the early 1970s, South Korea was actively pursuing development of nuclear warheads. But because of pressure from the United States, it abandoned those efforts in 1975, when it signed the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Since then, it has relied on the deterrence capacity of the United States, which has a stockpile of roughly 4,000 nuclear weapons.
Trump’s ‘America-first’ policy has triggered this kind of public sentiment
Moon Chung In, national security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae In
Now, North Korea’s advances in nuclear weaponry and missiles are changing South Korea’s strategic calculus. Kim Jong Un’s July 4 launch of an ICBM “was the most surprising and outstanding in the history of the North Korea missile development,” said Kim Jong Dae, a South Korean lawmaker and member of its National Defense Committee. North Korea fired a missile on Friday that traveled even farther — 2,300 miles in height — before landing in Japanese territorial waters.
U.S. analysts say North Korea could have the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead that, when placed atop a missile, could threaten the continental United States within a year or two. If that capability is affirmed, many South Koreans fear that U.S. leaders may grow reluctant to defend South Korea in a conventional war with North Korea, fearing it could lead to a full-blown nuclear exchange.
“If North Korea develops an ICBM and deploys nuclear weapons, will the United States deploy military forces at the right time in case of a contingency?” said Yoon. “If North Korea’s nuclear missiles can hit the mainland, will the United States protect South Korea during an attack? There are suspicions and concerns about these questions.”
Source: McClatchy Washington Bureau