Will South Korea Push For Its Own Nuclear Weapons?

North Korea’s government on Friday firmly suggested that the diplomats present at embassies in Pyongyang consider taking their leave, in yet another escalation of their war of words. Across the border in South Korea, the question of whether or not their own nuclear arsenal is required to meet Northern aggression has taken on a new impetus in the last weeks.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday announced a new overseas trip that would take him the Korean peninsula, primarily to deal with the heightened tensions in East Asia. South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap news agency is also reporting that formal talks to revise a U.S.-Republic of Korea bilateral nuclear accord would take place soon after Kerry’s visit.

South Korea is one of twenty-four other countries engaged with the U.S. in what are known as 123 Agreements — so-called because they are established under Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The U.S. is also in the process of negotiating 123 Agreements with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.

Under the terms of the 123 Agreement — which was last renegotiated in 1974 — South Korea currently operates 23 civilian nuclear reactors at four sites across the country. But under the 1974 agreement, South Korea was barred from reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel, due to fears of it being diverted towards a nuclear weapons program. That provision is what’s currently spurring South Korea’s push to open new talks over the agreement.


The argument over reprocessing, however, is being looked at under a new light, given the turning tide among South Koreans over whether their country requires nuclear weapons to serve as a deterrent against the North — which at present possesses enough nuclear fuel for at least 10 plutonium-based nuclear bombs. Two recent opinion polls taken in South Korea showed two-thirds of those surveyed supported the idea of developing nuclear weapons to defend against a North Korean attack. Conservative politicians in South Korea are beginning to latch onto this idea as well:

“We, the Korean people, have been duped by North Korea for the last 20 to 30 years and it is now time for South Koreans to face the reality and do something that we need to do,” said Chung Mong-joon, a lawmaker in the governing Saenuri (New Frontier) Party and a former presidential conservative candidate. “The nuclear deterrence can be the only answer. We have to have nuclear capability.”

At present, the Republic of Korea falls under what’s known as the U.S.’ “nuclear umbrella,” a pledge to use its own nuclear weapons in the protection of South Korea in exchange for them not developing their own. That pledge was likely the deciding factor in the launch of B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea last week, a show of force meant to both reassure South Korea and warn Pyongyang. South Korea’s determination to allow for reprocessing, however, have some concerned that Seoul is no longer completely certain of the U.S. ability to keep them safe. At the same time, a new poll out by Gallup found that 55 percent of Americans said the U.S. should defend South Korea if the North attacks.

However, experts say that not only is it a bad idea for the South Koreans to push for nuclear weapons, but they’re also unlikely to go in that direction. It “would deeply undermine the security situation on the peninsula and the leadership in Seoul understands this,” Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball told ThinkProgress. “Talk about South Korean nuclear weapons only makes the situation worse and would further goad the North.”

“Developing a nuclear weapon would be disastrous to the world’s 13th largest economy that is heavily dependent of international trade,” said James Lewis, spokesman for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in a statement released this week. “There would be no smartphones, fashion or superstars like Psy. South Korea can either have Psy or a nuke — they will likely pick Psy.”