SEOUL — A North Korean defector and prominent South Korean lawmaker is adding his voice to the growing push for Seoul to pursue its own nuclear weapons arsenal because the U.S. nuclear umbrella and mutual defense treaty no longer provide dependable protection against the threat from Pyongyang.
“The Kim Jong-un regime believes the U.S. will not exchange [Los Angeles] to protect Seoul,” said legislator Thae Yong-ho, voicing a fear that, if conventional push came to nuclear shove, Washington would not risk a North Korean attack on the American homeland to protect South Korea.
“However, if South Korea had direct deterrence with nuclear capabilities, North Korea would think differently,” Mr. Thae said.
Mr. Thae, a member of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s People Power Party who sits on the National Assembly’s foreign affairs and unification committees, was speaking to Seoul correspondents about an issue that has been gathering national attention.
The issue surfaced in July at the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul. It was in the midst of North Korea’s record year of missile testing, which the United Nations and the U.S. and its allies proved powerless to halt. Even though former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the star speaker, it was the conference sessions debating the once-taboo topic that seized the most attention.
A majority seemed in favor of South Korean nuclear capability. “How can we sleep at night?” said Hyundai scion Chung Mong-joon.
Mr. Yoon added fuel to the debate on Jan. 12 with a seemingly offhand remark about developing South Korean nuclear weapons. Even though the president walked back the comment, it rang bells.
A nuclear capability would not be a tough sell politically. A Jan. 30 poll of 1,000 adult Koreans found that 76.6% favored a domestic nuclear deterrent. That was up slightly from two surveys last year conducted by different pollsters in the U.S. and South Korea that found at least 70% in favor of the idea.
Mr. Thae brings a unique viewpoint to the debate.
The lawmaker is a former North Korean deputy ambassador who defected at the embassy in London in 2016. After resettling in Seoul, he ran for office and won a seat with the conservative People Power Party in 2020.
He has since become a prominent voice on matters concerning his former homeland and the growing concern that Seoul may not be able to count on the U.S. nuclear deterrent in a conflict.
“Extended deterrence” — the favored South Korean term for the doctrine of relying on the U.S. — “is not enough to prevent nuclear warfare on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Thae said on Thursday.
That flew in the face of assurances from visiting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin several days earlier.
Despite U.S. and U.N. demands for denuclearization on the divided peninsula, analysts have said for years that the Kim regime would never abandon its “sacred sword.”
However deep the U.S. commitment may be to the dwindling hope of ending North Korea’s nuclear program, Mr. Thae said, he thinks Washington could be persuaded to accept the majority South Korean view.
“People like me keep arguing that South Korea should have its own nuke capabilities under agreement with the U.S.,” Mr. Thae said. “People say the U.S. will not agree with South Korea’s nuclear armament … [but] the security structure in Northeast Asia is very unbalanced.”
The China-North Korea-Russia bloc comprises three nuclear-armed states, but the Japan-South Korea-United States alliance relies entirely on American nuclear capability, he said.
Moreover, he said, if Beijing takes military action against Taiwan and Washington springs to Taipei’s defense, the Pentagon might lack capabilities to defend Seoul if Pyongyang seizes the moment to invade.
“I believe in a strategic perspective,” Mr. Thae said. “If the U.S. is to have the capability to wage two wars at the same time, it will … agree for Japan or South Korea to strengthen their power with nuclear armaments.”
He noted that the U.S. wrote Japan’s pacifist constitution after World War II but has given Tokyo increased leeway and encouragement to beef up its military forces in recent years.
The Biden administration has agreed to provide Tokyo with Tomahawk cruise missiles — currently operated only by the U.S. and Britain — for counterstrike capability. Though the missiles will not mount nuclear warheads, Mr. Thae said, he doubts Washington would have permitted Japan to own such assets as recently as a decade ago.
“That signals a change in the security landscape,” he said. “The influence of Russia and China in our region is intensifying. The U.S. alone would have difficulty confronting intensifying forces in the region, so the U.S. agreed for Japan to have these kinds of capabilities.”
A collateral upside to a South Korean nuclear push could be its impact on China.
Some analysts say any pressure on Beijing to compel Pyongyang to curb its weapons programs evaporated when Japan and South Korea failed to change their policies after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
Opinions are divided on whether China considers a nuclear-armed North Korea to be a useful ally or a nuisance that gives the U.S. military an excuse to deploy forces to Asia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly urged Mr. Kim not to give up his nuclear arms during his engagement with the Trump administration, Mr. Pompeo said last summer.
Mr. Pompeo, who headed the CIA and the State Department during Mr. Trump’s term, did not reveal the source of his intelligence.
There is little doubt that high-tech, prosperous South Korea, with home-grown missile technologies and fissile materials from nuclear power plants, is capable of producing a nuclear weapon.
Not all are sold on the idea.
Siegfried Hecker, a scholar and a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory who has visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities, made the case against a South Korean nuclear capability in a Jan. 20 essay on the 38 North website.
Such a program, he said, would come at an immense financial cost to the South Korean economy and conventional military budget. Moreover, Seoul would likely be unable to import further nuclear fuel, leaving it reliant on its own cache and effectively ending its lucrative export market in nuclear reactors.
He noted that South Korea is smaller and more densely populated than the North, raising questions about where a nuclear test could be conducted and whether the democratic system would allow it.
South Korea would be the first democracy to exit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, Mr. Hecker said. Washington would “almost certainly” withdraw its nuclear umbrella, and South Korea would be “shunned by the international community.”
Yet France, Israel and Britain joined the nuclear club without significantly degrading relations with Washington. A senior strategy consultant to Brussels told reporters in Seoul last year that Pyongyang’s behavior provides ample grounds for Seoul to invoke the NPT exit clause.
In that case, the consultant said, the European Union would briefly voice displeasure in global forums but would not sanction South Korea.
• Andrew Salmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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