State-Run South Korean Think Tank Suggests Seoul Make Its Own Nukes

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

The Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), a South Korean state-managed think tank, published a report this week suggesting that the government of President Yoon Suk-yeol should consider developing a nuclear weapons arsenal in response to North Korea signing a mutual defense treaty with Russia.

“A government level-review and strategic review of various alternatives, including deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, NATO-style nuclear sharing, nuclear self-armament and the establishment of potential nuclear capabilities, needs to take place,” the INSS concluded in its report, according to a translation by the Japan Times. “As does public debate over these options.”

South Korea is not a nuclear armed state and is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), so developing a nuclear weapons program would go beyond domestic policy and require significant changes to its international relations. It would also require significant and prolonged conversations with the United States, which maintains a military presence in the country as part of the technically still-ongoing Korean War, whose active hostilities ended with an armistice in 1953 but neither side has surrendered or signed a peace treaty.

Polling has consistently shown that developing nuclear weapons is extremely popular in South Korea. Current President Yoon Suk-yeol suggested in January 2023 that South Korea could “deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own nukes.” The comment alarmed that administration of President Joe Biden, which largely ignored tensions on the Korean peninsula but deployed nuclear assets to Busan, South Korea, shortly after Yoon’s remarks.

The impetus for the INSS recommending South Korea consider nuclear development is a meeting on June 20 in Pyongyang between Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and communist dictator Kim Jong-un of North Korea in which the two signed a treaty that requires either side to engage militarily if one of their countries in attacked. North Korea has maintained an illegal nuclear weapons program for decades. While it has not tested a nuclear bomb since 2017, a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) this month indicated that North Korea is believed to possess 50 nuclear warheads, 20 more than just a year ago.

“During Putin’s visit to Pyongyang, Russia indirectly recognized North Korea’s nuclear armament by blatantly ignoring the United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea,” INSS report read. “There are concerns that North Korea’s status as a nuclear state will be more likely as time passes.”

The conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published an opinion column on Tuesday embracing the suggestion to develop nuclear weapons.

“Although other national policy research institutes have previously mentioned the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons or adopting a similar defense system like NATO’s,” the newspaper observed, “it is rare for them to mention independent nuclear armament and the acquisition of reprocessing rights.”

“Currently, S. Korea is bordered by North Korea, China, and Russia, and all three countries possess nuclear weapons and are governed by authoritarian regimes ruled by dictators,” Chosun continued. “However, S. Korea faces them without its own nuclear arms. This disparity cannot be sustained and will inevitably lead to problems.”

Chosun also suggested that “relying solely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella has its limitations,” echoing concerns reported by the Japan Times that “fears that the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence may be crumbling.” Neither newspaper specified why, but one of America’s most high-profile security guarantee agreements is a prominent player in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine – Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for Washington vowing to protect it from invasion, a promise it has arguably kept poorly.

“The S. Korean government should no longer taboo the discussion of the nuclear armament of the nation since we have passed the point where such discussions can be avoided,” it concluded. “S. Korea needs to persuade the U.S. that possessing nuclear weapons under mutual agreement would benefit the U.S.’s strategy in the Western Pacific.”

It noted that, if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House following the November presidential election, South Korea “could consider demanding a nuclear option in exchange for agreeing to a significant increase in defense cost-sharing,” something Chosun apparently dismissed as impossible under current President Joe Biden.

Polling indicates most South Koreans would support nuclear armament. A survey commissioned by the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies and conducted by Gallup Korea published in February found that 72.8 percent of South Koreans believed their country should develop nuclear weapons. Notably, about 60 percent said they did not believe the United States would use nuclear weapons to defend South Korea from a Northern attack.

Over 90 percent said they did not believe it was possible to denuclearize North Korea at all.

Yoon mentioned the possibility of nuclearizing only once, in January 2023, following Kim Jong-un’s public call for an “exponential increase” in the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

“The Republic of Korea could deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own nukes,” Yoon suggested. “It won’t take long for us to have one, given our scientific and technological capabilities.”


By July, Biden approved the deployment of the USS Kentucky, an Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine, to Busan, the first such deployment since 1981. Yoon threatened to “end” the North Korean communist regime while on the Kentucky.


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