A North Korean defector, now a prominent South Korean lawmaker, is adding his voice to the growing push for Seoul to seek its own nuclear weapons arsenal, saying 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 Thursday, voicing a fear here that, if conventional push came to nuclear shove, Washington would not risk a North Korean attack on the American homeland to protect Seoul.
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 for over a year.
It surfaced at Seoul’s Asian Leadership Conference last July, in the midst of North Korea’s busiest ever year of missile testing — tests the United Nations, 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 Korea seeking its own nuclear capability. Exclaimed one of the country’s leading tycoons, Hyundai scion Chung Mong-joon, “How can we sleep at night?”
Mr. Yoon himself added fuel to the debate last month, briefly raising the possibility of Seoul obtaining nuclear arms in public comments on January 12. Even though the remark sounded offhand and the president subsequently walked it back, it rang bells.
It would not be a tough sell politically: A Jan. 30 poll of 1,000 adult Koreans found 76.6% favored a domestic nuclear deterrent. That’s up slightly from two 2022 surveys, conducted by two different pollsters in the U.S. and Korea, which both found at least 70% in favor of the idea.
Mr. Thae brings a unique viewpoint to the debate.
The lawmaker was once a North Korean deputy ambassador who defected from Pyongyang’s London embassy in 2016. After resettling in Seoul, he ran for office and won a seat with the conservative People Power Party in 2020.
“Extended deterrence” — the favored term here for the doctrine of relying on the Americans — “is not enough to prevent nuclear warfare on the Korean peninsula,” Mr. Thae flatly said.
That flew in the face of assurances delivered by visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Seoul earlier this week.
Despite U.S. and U.N. demands for denuclearization on the divided peninsula, analysts have said for years that the Kim regime will never abandon its so-called “sacred sword.”
However deep the U.S. commitment may be to that dwindling hope of ending the North Korean nuclear programs, Mr. Thae said he believed 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.”
“I believe in a strategic perspective,” Mr. Thae insisted. “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 in recent years has given Tokyo increased leeway and encouragement to beef up its military forces.
The Biden administration has agreed to provide Tokyo with Tomahawk cruise missiles — currently operated only by the U.S. and the UK — for a so-called “counter-strike” capability. Though the missiles will not mount nuclear warheads, Mr. Thae said it was doubtful 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 kind of capabilities.”
A collateral upside to a South Korean nuclear push could be its impact on China.
Some believe that when Japan and South Korea failed to change their policies after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, any pressure on Beijing to compel Pyongyang to curb its weapons programs evaporated.
Opinions are divided on whether China considers a nuclear-armed North Korea a useful ally or a nuisance that gives the U.S. military the excuse to deploy forces to Asia.
Mr. Pompeo last summer claimed that, during the Trump administration’s engagement with Mr. Kim, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly called the North Korean leader to urge him not to give up his nuclear arms.
Mr. Pompeo, who headed both 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, possessing home-grown missile technologies and fissile materials from nuclear power plants, is capable of going nuclear.
Despite the polls, not all are sold on the idea.
Perhaps the most authoritative belongs to the scholar Siegfried Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories who has visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities.
In a January 20 essay on website 38 North.org, Mr. Hecker made the case against a South Korean nuclear capability.
Such a program, he argued, would come at immense financial cost, taxing not just the economy but the South’s conventional military budget. Moreover, Seoul would likely be unable to import further nuclear fuel, leaving it reliant upon its current cache and effectively ending its lucrative export market in nuclear reactors.
South Korea, he added, is smaller and more densely populated than the North, raising questions of where a nuclear test could be conducted and whether South Korea‘s democratic system would allow it to take place.
A nuclear push would make South Korea 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 all joined the nuclear club in decades past without Washington significantly degrading relations. And 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 predicted, the EU would briefly voice displeasure in global fora, but would not sanction South Korea.