Discussions about the US returning tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in the 1990s have been going on for a long time, but they have noticeably intensified in recent months. In addition, the desire to strengthen the alliance with the United States will mean that given the new circumstances, Seoul will spare no effort to prove its value and reliability to Washington. Unfortunately, Russia may well find itself on the receiving end of these efforts, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.
Last spring, the South Korean political class resumed a debate on a matter that until recently seemed to have been resolved long ago, once and for all and, accordingly, has remained off the table for several decades now. It’s about whether Seoul should withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and create its own nuclear weapons. This matter is not yet covered in the media, but is widely discussed by diplomats, politicians and international relations analysts.
President Yoon Suk-yeol put out a statement on August 17 to the effect that South Korea allegedly had no plans to create its own nuclear deterrence force. On the face of it, the president made clear his position on this matter, but what this statement really means is that the discussion on developing nuclear weapons has reached an unprecedented level among the Seoul elites. Never before has the South Korean president openly talked about developing nuclear weapons.
However, the South Korean public has never had any doubts on that matter with polls over the past 15 years or so showing that 60 percent to 75 percent of the South Koreans wanted their country to develop its own nuclear weapons (the most recent poll held in late 2021 showed that 71 percent of respondents were supportive of the idea).
However, until recently, thiskind of popular enthusiasm met with little or no understanding on the part of the political elite, which was well aware of the political consequences of South Korea going nuclear, as well as the barriers Seoul would have to overcome along the way. Truth be told, occasionally individual influential members of the establishment expressed support for the idea of creating nuclear weapons in South Korea, but the majority of the South Korean political class believed that Seoul need not seriously consider the option of going nuclear.
The country’s leadership is aware that developing nuclear weapons would lead to a confrontation between Seoul and the rest of the world and, most likely, to the imposition of international sanctions on South Korea, including UN sanctions. The nuclear option proponents hope, though,that their stance wil lfind understanding with Washington, which would somewhat mitigate the impact.