Seoul, South Korea – Hours after United States President Joe Biden left Tokyo following a five-day tour to Japan and South Korea last week, officials in Seoul sounded the alarm over the launch of a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile test from North Korea.
If confirmed, the launch of an ICBM – a weapon that is capable of reaching the continental US – will mark Pyongyang’s second such missile test this year. With denuclearisation talks stalled, the governments of South Korea and the US are also warning that the impoverished nation may be preparing for a nuclear test – its first in five years and seventh overall.
On the streets of Seoul, however, most South Koreans responded to the latest launches with a shrug of the shoulder. In Myeondong, the city’s bustling centre, Kim Min-yi, a 49-year-old housewife said the North’s stepped up tests were “their way of saying ‘we need help’ or ‘let’s have a talk’”. Lee Yun-yi, a Catholic nun, said it looked like a “desperate gesture” for help over the country’s sanctions-fuelled economic crisis as well as its first confirmed COVID-19 outbreak.
While resigned to the North’s growing nuclear and missiles arsenal, most people said they wanted President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office on May 10, to respond firmly.
“We need to be stern in our response, but we also need to be careful at the same time not to encourage further provocations,” said Chae Soon-ok, an academic. “I think that South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons – not for the purpose of launching an attack, but for national defence.”
Park Jung-bin, a 23-year-old student, agreed.
“Why are we letting our enemy upgrade their main weapon?” she asked. “South Korea has been facing off with North Korea for decades. We’ve tried to talk to them, but the North keeps testing its nuclear weapons. Owning a nuclear weapon is more efficient. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’.”
Chae and Park’s views, once a topic for the political fringe in South Korea, are increasingly mainstream, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. A poll by the US-based think-tank in February found that as many as 71 percent of South Koreans favour acquiring their own nuclear weapon – mainly because North Korea has continued to develop its weapons programme in defiance of global sanctions and censure.
From larger weapons meant for strategic use, North Korea has now developed tactical weapons that can be used on the battlefield, “with low yields and less nuclear fallout and with which they can attack South Korea, and also Japan,” said Jaechun Kim, a professor of international relations at South Korea’s Sogang University.
“This is all the more problematic, because the North has developed all sorts of vehicles, long range as well as short-range missiles, with which they can deliver these nukes to South Korea,” he said. While South Korea “remains very vulnerable, it is “unfortunately, largely reliant on the US extended deterrence,” he added, referring to a pledge by Washington – the South’s main security ally – to use its nuclear, conventional and defence capabilities to deter attacks on its allies.
Will the US risk LA for Seoul?
The US has maintained a formal deterrence commitment to South Korea since it intervened in the Korean War of 1950-53 to push back invading troops from the North.
It also deployed tactical nuclear weapons to South Korean territory in 1958 to deter any renewed attacks, but pulled them out in 1991 as part of a bid to persuade Pyongyang to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities. At the time, Washington pledged to protect the South – which had abandoned its own nuclear ambitions and had signed on to the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – using nuclear bombers and submarines based in the Pacific Ocean and the continental US.
But now, with the North’s ever-increasing nuclear and missile capabilities, analysts say there is “lingering doubt” in South Korea about whether the US’s deterrence strategy is good enough to defend the country – especially as North Korea now claims to have a “second-strike” retaliatory capability against the US.
“Many South Koreans harbour suspicion ‘whether the US is going to risk Los Angeles to save Seoul’,” said Kim. “So, my take is that unless something more substantial – such as redeployment of American tactical nukes to South Korea – there is going to be constant demand by many South Koreans to develop our own nukes.”
Yoon, the South Korean president, on the campaign trail had said he would ask the US to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the country. He has since backtracked, affirming in a joint statement following Biden’s visit, a commitment to the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula. But the pair also agreed to expand the scope and size of their military exercises to deter North Korea.
And following Pyongyang’s May 25 salvo of missiles, the US and South Korean militaries fired missiles of their own to show their “ability and readiness to precision-strike the origin of the provocation with overwhelming power”.
Still, after the policies of former US President Donald Trump – who raised questions over Washington’s commitment to South Korea’s defence, including by demanding that Seoul pay billions more dollars to support the 28,500 American troops stationed there – some South Koreans now believe their country is better off pursuing an independent defence strategy, instead of relying on a third country’s “nuclear umbrella”.
“I think that Korea should try to strengthen national defence by developing new weapons, but this should exclude help from US. We should search for ways to strengthen security without involving third country,” said a 25-year-old man who recently finished his mandatory military service. “We should have our own nuclear weapons.”
Others milling about at Seoul’s waterfront Yeouido Park also said acquiring a nuclear weapon would increase South Korea’s international standing and prestige. “Because South Korea is stuck between powerful nations such as China, Russia and Japan, it is our priority agenda to strengthen national defence,” said Jung Yoo-jin, a 21-year-old student. “Korea should begin to have their own weapons since South Korea is now one of the strongest economic countries in the world,” said Lee Mee Yun, 22.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also hardened attitudes about nuclear weapons, said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School at the Tufts University in the US.
“The situation in Ukraine is a reminder that in the end, you’re on your own. I mean, when somebody invades you then you have to defend yourself and others. Even treaty allies may think twice before putting their own people, their own troops in danger,” he said.
“The broad international environment, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the growing North Korean nuclear capabilities and threats all point to the logical conclusion in South Korea, one would think that, hey, can we really depend on US deterrence? Or just in case, do we need to come up with a plan B, which is … going nuclear?”
“I think we’re moving more and more on that trajectory.”