The Rising South Korean Nuclear Horn: Daniel 7

7 in 10 South Koreans want nuclear weapons to defend against China and North Korea threats, poll reveals

Carl Samson

Wed, February 23, 2022, 4:33 PM·2 min read

Seven in 10 South Koreans support their country developing its own nuclear weapons, according to a survey report released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Tuesday.

The poll, which surveyed 1,500 respondents aged 18 and above, was conducted from Dec. 1 to Dec. 4, 2021, by Hankook Research in South Korea.

Results show that 71% of respondents are in favor of developing a domestic nuclear program, while 56% support a U.S. deployment. When asked to choose between the two options, however, 67% preferred an independent arsenal, while only 9% opted for an American deployment.

The poll’s findings do not strongly align with reasons for armament cited by some local politicians and analysts, the Chicago Council said. While many have attributed public support for nuclear acquisition to concerns over the strength of the nation’s alliance with the U.S., 61% of poll respondents who believe that the U.S. will defend South Korea in the event of an attack were positively associated with support for nuclear acquisition.

The report also reflects that “threats other than North Korea” was the primary driver of support for weapons acquisition, with 55% saying that China “will be South Korea’s biggest threat in 10 years.”

“I believe North Korea’s missile tests are no longer threatening South Koreans anymore,” Kang Hyun-seok, a worker based in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “I think South Koreans now think that the diplomatic overtures can only succeed when South Korea be a [sic] more powerful country with nuclear missile technologies, considering how North Korea treated South Korea in the nuclear talks.”

Other reasons for supporting nuclear armament included “increasing South Korea’s prestige in the international community” (26%), “countering the North Korean threat” (23%) and preparing for theoretical shifts such as a U.S. withdrawal (11%).

Still, 46% of respondents selected North Korea as the top national security threat at present. A glaring 82% also believe that Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons.

Authors of the report believe U.S. policymakers should take South Koreans’ views into account.

“We can’t just ignore this. We can’t treat it as, ‘the public is emotional on these issues,’” co-author Toby Dalton told the Washington Post. Dalton is also the co-director and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program.

While support for a domestic nuclear program is strong, South Korea can currently neither develop its own weapons nor redeploy those coming from the U.S., as Seoul is a signatory of the global Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from 1970.

The U.S. withdrew all its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, as per The New York Times. Subsequently, representatives in both South and North Korea signed an agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, but the North has never followed through.

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