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South Koreans wonder: Will the US still protect us from North Korea?


TOKYO — The mood around Unification Village, just south of the inter-Korean border, has grown tense over the past two years as North Korea ramps up its ballistic missile tests. Recently, North Korean drones even infiltrated the border.

“It’s about time we went nuclear,” said Lee Wan-bae, who has lived in the village for 50 years, just three miles south of the military demarcation line that marks the official border between the two Koreas.

For decades, Lee has had a front-line view of fluctuating border tensions amid failed attempts to disarm North Korea. “It seems more and more that matching North Korea’s nuclear threat is the solution that will bring long-awaited stability to our village life,” Lee said.

With North Korea threatening to attack the South with nuclear weapons and no sign of a return to denuclearization talks, South Koreans are increasingly debating whether they can still rely on the United States to protect them in the event of war on the peninsula.

The shifting geopolitical landscape surrounding South Korea over the past year – an unprecedented number of missile launches from North Korea, the rattle of Russian nuclear weapons and growing fears that China will invade Taiwan – has prompted South Koreans to take a sober look at their security dependence on the United States.

At the same time, the South Korean public has become increasingly supportive of owning nuclear weapons, a sentiment that was once considered marginal but is now mainstream.

South Koreans want nuclear weapons en masse to confront China and North Korea, polls show

As a signatory to the International Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), South Korea is prohibited from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. South Korea remains under the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, which guarantees that the United States will use its nuclear weapons to protect South Korea if necessary. This commitment by the US to protect allies is sometimes referred to as ‘extended deterrence’.

There is now an urgent need to verify the credibility of the scheme. Some South Korean analysts wonder: Would the United States really use its nuclear arsenal to protect South Korea? And would it even do so during the Russian invasion of Ukraine or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?

“While South Korea has similarly sought reassurance from the United States in the past… current discussions are different due to drastic changes in the threat environment” and conditions surrounding South Korea, said S. Paul Choi, director of the Seoul-based consultancy StratWays Group and a former South Korean military officer.

The risk of conflict breaking out in multiple places at once, such as in Europe and East Asia, or in multiple places in the East Asian region, “gives further concern about the US’s ability to deliver on its commitment.” Choi said.

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South Korean leaders are grappling with this public debate, which has intensified over the past month after South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol casually mentioned the possibility of adopting nuclear as a policy option, though he suggested it was unrealistic. He later backtracked on the comment, saying he had “complete confidence in the U.S.’s comprehensive deterrence.”

Several South Korean officials reaffirmed the country’s confidence in the alliance and commitment to the NPT. But they recognized the need to strengthen the Allies’ response to North Korea and said their discussions with the United States focused on setting and achieving those goals.

South Korean officials also view their trilateral efforts with the United States and Japan to respond to the North’s threat, such as exercises and increased communications, as another way to bridge the credibility gap.

“Having our own nuclear weapons is not a realistic option. But the fact that the public wants it is a reflection of their security concerns,” said a senior South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “What the audience feels is important. We need to talk between South Korea and the United States to build their confidence and make them feel that extended deterrence is not just declarative.

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North Korea is pushing ahead with its five-year nuclear development plan, with leader Kim Jong-un promising an “exponential increase” in its arsenal this year. In September, North Korea passed a more aggressive law that says it may use nuclear weapons “when troops attempt to violate the fundamental interests of our state.” The North is also advancing tactical nuclear weapons, which have lower explosive yields and fly shorter distances – and are aimed at the South.

“Security concerns among the South Korean public have increased because of the North’s recent push for short-range missiles and tactical nuclear capability, which are seen as imminent threats,” said Jina Kim, a security expert at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. As North Korea evolves in its nuclear ambitions, allies must also adjust their efforts to deter Pyongyang by preparing for specific scenarios of nuclear strikes, she said.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his South Korean counterpart, Lee Jong-sup, met in Seoul last week to discuss how to reaffirm US involvement in South Korea. They announced new measures, including holding a nuclear table exercise this month and expanding the “level and scale” of their combined exercises, according to a joint statement.

Choi said South Korea is seeking a greater role and involvement in the alliance’s deterrence efforts, not only by discussing policies, but also by determining how those policies are implemented and how joint military operations are designed and conducted.

South Korean policymakers are most concerned about the leaders of North Korea and China no longer believing the US’s commitments on expanded deterrence are credible, he said. That is especially true when it comes to whether the United States would use its nuclear weapons to defend South Korea.

For much of the Cold War, the United States stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea. Then, in 1991, President George HW Bush began the withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad. In 2016, then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye allegedly asked the United States to redeploy the tactical weapons, but was refused.

Public polls over the past decade have shown that support for a nuclear weapons program in South Korea has steadily increased, ranging from 60 to more than 70 percent of the population. A new poll released last week by the Seoul-based Chey Institute for Advanced Studies found that an overwhelming 76.6 percent of 1,000 respondents support domestic nuclear weapons capability.

A North Korean drone has entered the no-fly zone near the Seoul presidential office

A Biden administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the United States has made it clear that there would be an “overwhelming response” in the event of a nuclear attack, and that US policymakers believe that South Koreans understand the “costs and benefits and enormous risks” of having their own nuclear weapons.

Kim, of Hankuk University, added that while there is popular support, there hasn’t been enough discussion about the potential downsides of going nuclear. The South Korean military’s nuclear pursuit, in violation of the NPT, would also deal a blow to the country’s civilian nuclear industry, she said.

Still, analysts agree that the two countries need to do more.

“Certainty is not so much about whether the adversary is deterred, but more about feeling that American allies feel protected,” wrote Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “While the alliance can do little militarily to prevent North Korea from conducting missile launches and nuclear tests, it can and must do more to bolster security.”

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