South Korea’s Nuclear Moment - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
South Korea’s Nuclear Moment

South Korea is in the midst of a defining moment in its 75-year history. As President Yoon Suk-yeol pointed out in early January, North Korea’s increasing nuclear stockpile is a threat to South Korea’s national sovereignty. If Pyongyang continues this nuclear escalation, Seoul will have no choice but to pursue its own nuclear missile program.

Yoon recently spoke with his defense team and foreign ministers and emphasized that the government is not, at this time, actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. However, the South Korean National Assembly did take proactive measures in late December to increase the 2023 defense budget by 4.4 percent to about $45 billion, and this rise in funding will improve South Korea’s ability to counter any drone attack from the North.

In addition, a solid pro-nuclear national consensus is beginning to take hold, as a 2022 Chicago Council on Global Affairs study revealed. According to that report, 71 percent of South Korean citizens want the country to begin stockpiling its own nuclear weapons.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given South Koreans insight into what is possible when you share a border with a nuclear-armed, dictator-ruled country.

South Korea does have the technology to develop a large bomb, but it would be ideal for Seoul policymakers if the United States aided in nuclear deterrence, especially as, since the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has been supported by a U.S. military presence in the form of about 28,000 troops and enough “nuclear-armed submarines, heavy bombers, and stealth fighters … to deter an attack.”

However, recent world events make the South Korean–U.S. alliance uncertain, with Koreans questioning the extent to which the U.S. would be willing to come to their aid. The Biden administration has adopted former President Barack Obama’s approach of withdrawing from the world stage, as is demonstrated by its abandonment of allies in Afghanistan. Many point to this withdrawal as a primary reason for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s guarantee to ramp up nuclear testing. South Koreans have every right to be skeptical of the U.S.’s commitment to provide security against the Northern threat.

This attitude is reflected in an early January article from South Korea’s oldest daily newspaper, The Chosun Ilbo, which boldly claims that “the North Korean nuclear program has become too menacing to entrust the fate of the nation to the U.S. alone.” The piece goes on to endorse the creation of a nuclear program, asking, “[W]hat choice does Seoul have when the North continues to develop more powerful nukes, China keeps looking the other way, and the U.S.'[s] focus is elsewhere”?

And North Korea has indeed continued to build its nuclear arsenal. In 2022, the country recorded 100 missile tests. Moreover, back in November, it tested a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a weapon that is liquid-fuel based, can carry numerous warheads, and could reach the intercontinental U.S.

The attention to detail and acceleration of tests shows how dangerous Kim’s regime has become. All its ICBMs are designed based on the five-year plan created in January 2021 at the Eighth Party Congress, which stipulated that ICBMs should be capable of launching from both land and sea. Soon, we may also see the activation of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle technologies. With these, North Korea would be able to disrupt U.S. defense systems.

International reports also indicate that Pyongyang will unveil a seventh nuclear test later this year, making it evident that North Korea is heading at full speed toward its goal of being operational to launch at will.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given South Koreans insight into what is possible when you share a border with a nuclear-armed, dictator-ruled country. Unfortunately, the U.S. and the West have not given as much attention to the Indo-Pacific region as they have to the war in Ukraine. A North Korean invasion of the South is not imminent, but destabilizing the South Korean–U.S. relationship and shifting the balance of power in North Korea’s favor will devastate international relations.

To avoid further escalation, the U.S. will need to follow the 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy, which, in the Nuclear Posture Review, makes clear that the United States will need to work closely with South Korea and Japan “to ensure an effective mix of capabilities, concepts, deployments, exercises, and tailored options to deter and, if necessary to respond to coercion and aggression.” Only by joining forces with allies, not withdrawing, will the U.S. defeat its Chinese, Russian, and North Korean enemies.

For now, South Korea is protected by the U.S.’s nuclear armory and tied to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a global alliance intended to reduce the number of globally produced atomic weapons. However, all options must remain on the table when dealing with the powerful North Korean regime.

Alex Adkins is a graduate of Benedictine University who has written for American Thinker, the Federalist, and the Western Journal.


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