South Korean advocates of nuclear deterrence say the government in Seoul must pursue its own nuclear weapons programs to defend against North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.
Song Dae-sung, a political science professor at Kunkuk University in Seoul and author of the book Let’s Have Nuclear Power makes the case for a nuclear armed South Korea.
“If North Korea becomes a nuclear-armed state and its adversary does not own nuclear power, then the non-nuclear state becomes a slave or hostage of the nuclear state. This is a basic principle of international politics,” said Song.
National Assembly Representative Won Yoo-chul, a leader within of the ruling Saenuri Party, has also been a strong nuclear advocate.
Won has put together a study group in the parliamentary National Defense Committee to assess the risks and benefits of South Korea pursuing its own nuclear program. “The most efficient way to deter nuclear warfare is to have nukes for our self-defense,” Won has said.
Seoul’s nuclear proponents argue that the international sanctions imposed on North Korea for its fourth nuclear test and most recent long-range rocket launch have so far not deterred Pyongyang.
Since the sanctions were imposed, the North Korean military has accelerated its ballistic missile development by conducting numerous launches, and satellite images show signs that the North’s Yongbyon reactor site has resumed producing plutonium used in nuclear bombs.
On Thursday North Korean state media reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised the most recent submarine-launched ballistic missile test and declared it "the greatest success" that put the country in the "front rank" of nuclear military powers.
Nuclear proponents say South Korea cannot leave its fate in the hands of China or the U.S.
Beijing has been reluctant to vigorously enforce sanctions, they say, because it needs a stable counterbalance to the superior conventional forces of the South Korean-U.S. Military alliance.
And Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, has cast doubt on the U.S. policy of providing extended nuclear deterrence in the region by questioning America’s commitment to protect South Korea.
“If the U.S. elects a president who makes such an argument, then South Korea needs to own nuclear power all the more,” said Song.
However, South Korean President Park Geun-hye supports the current deterrence and containment regime that involves a close military alliance with the United States and increasing international pressure on the North Korean government.
Opponents of arming South Korea with nuclear weapons say it would unravel the security architecture that has maintained peace in the region for decades.
“Those guys arguing for the possession of nuclear weapons are first, shortsighted, second, they do not understand the negative consequences of that kind of move, and third, that would lead to a nuclear domino on the Korean Peninsula in Northeast Asia,” said Moon Chung-in, a political science professor with Yonsei University.
While some supporters contend that a nuclear South Korea would exert pressure on North Korea or China, opponents argue it would actually dissipate international support for North Korean sanctions.
“Who I think would absolutely be thrilled with such a development would be North Korea, because if the ROK (Republic of Korea) were to pursue its own nuclear deterrence then it would justify everything they have done,” said regional security analyst Daniel Pinkston with Troy University in Seoul.
The United Nations might also impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on South Korea for developing nuclear weapons in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) it signed as a non-nuclear weapons state.
North Korea’s withdraw from the NPT in 2003 is a major justification for the current sanctions in place against it.
However the South’s nuclear supporters say Seoul could invoke Article 10 of the NPT, which allows for a withdraw from the treaty when extraordinary events jeopardize national interests, by citing the North’s nuclear threat.
A nuclear South Korea could also weaken the close military alliance between Seoul and Washington and the need for large American conventional forces on the Korean Peninsula.
“It will be very difficult for the Americans, who are very sympathetic with South Korea’s national security conditions, (to) argue that South Korea needs both its own nuclear weapons, and men and women of the United States sacrificing their safety in defense of South Korea,” said Bong Young-shik with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies.
Critics argue that Japan would also likely follow suit and acquire its own nuclear weapons, further increasing regional tensions and the potential for nuclear war in Asia.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.