The Korean Nuclear Weapons Debate – OpEd
For the past decade, South Koreans have expressed support for developing their own nuclear weapons due to an increased sense of insecurity from North Korea’s nuclear program and a lack of trust in the ability of the US to protect them.
Two surveys released in the past two months confirm this. First, a survey released by the Hankook Ilbo in early January showed 66.8% of South Koreans supported developing nuclear weapons. Then the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies published a survey showing 76.6% of Koreans thought nuclear weapons were needed. 77%??!!
That’s an outlier—but only by a little. Most surveys released last year show about 70% of Koreans support having their own nuclear program. President Yoon Suk-yeol is even making allusions to the possibility of developing nukes. In January, Yoon said South Korea should consider “possess[ing] our own nuclear weapons” or having strategic nuclear missiles placed in the ROK by the US.
Yoon’s comments shocked many at the time. The Hankyoreh, a progressive newspaper, published an editorial that said, “With the situation being this sensitive, it is highly inappropriate for the president, who should be making thoughtful comments, to bring up nuclear armament in such a public and official manner.”
Sejong Institute senior researcher Cheong Seong-chang said, “It’s a very important development. Until now, the South Korean government had never considered independent nuclear armament, even as a ‘plan B.’”
But how serious was the news really? Is Korean public opinion really changing?
As I wrote in an article on my Substack blog/newsletter, Koreans have expressed support for nuclear weapons for years. They have seen that the negotiations with North Korea are never going to work. Additionally, only 36.7% of South Koreans believe the US would intervene unconditionally to defend their country in the case of an invasion.
So the US can do some to reassure Korea; however, part of that distrust of the international community is rooted in historical issues the US cannot change overnight. The US has broken promises to Korea in the past.
Still, I don’t think Koreans would really be so enthusiastic about nuclear development if it were proposed in real life. As I wrote, it “is a different question in practice than as a theoretical ‘yes or not’/‘agree or disagree’ response to a non-threatening survey.”
Read my article and subscribe to see the survey results in detail and my analysis: Do 77% of Koreans Really Support A South Korean Nuclear Weapons Program? – US-Korea Policy Project
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