Seoul: conservatives demand nuclear warheads, Washington says no
by Guido Alberto Casanova

The US Armed Forces have withdrawn all atomic weapons since 1991, but threats from North Korea are worrying. The politicians who have made the proposal are marginalised by the Conservative Party itself. 55% of citizens would like to see the development of a national nuclear programme. 

Seoul (AsiaNews) - Tension is rising on the Korean peninsula: between the end of September and the first half of October, North Korea engaged in a long series of ballistic missile launches, accompanied by other military provocations. Faced with the threat of Pyongyang, whose tests would simulate an attack on the South according to propaganda, Seoul has again started to call for the development of its own nuclear arsenal.

The proposal, put forward by some conservative figures, is part of the broader debate on the role of nuclear weapons in the country's defence. Since 1991, thanks to a collective agreement on the denuclearisation of the peninsula, the US Armed Forces have withdrawn all atomic warheads from South Korea. Over the past 20 years, however, the North has developed its own weapons programme that effectively makes it a nuclear power today.

The voices in favour of developing an arsenal come mainly from the conservative camp. A fortnight ago, during a radio interview, MP Kim Gi-hyeon said that in his opinion 'South Korea should move towards its own nuclear armament'.

Echoing him was the mayor of Daegu, Hong Joon-pyo, who in a Facebook post questioned the US resolve to intervene when the North Korean threat made it necessary: "If North Korea used nuclear weapons against us, would they be able to counterattack with their nuclear arsenals?" wrote Hong. Some former South Korean generals have also expressed the view that Seoul should explore this avenue and strengthen its latent nuclear capabilities.

At the moment, however, it is the Conservative Party itself that marginalises these voices. The president of the ruling party, Chung Jin-suk, has ruled out the country's acquisition of armaments because this would mean abandoning the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Besides the negative economic fallout for South Korea, this would also have the implicit effect of legitimising the North's nuclear programme. Chung, like many others, believes instead that the alliance with the United States, which provides a nuclear umbrella against North Korean threats, should be strengthened.

For its part, the conservative government of Yoon Suk-yeol is considering every available option. As reported by local media rumours, the government has reportedly considered asking its US ally to return to deploy nuclear warheads in defence of the country.

Washington, however, does not seem enthusiastic: in recent weeks, official statements by the US embassy and authorities have multiplied, emphasising that all US military capabilities are deployed for the defence of South Korea, including nuclear weapons. The reconfirmation of the commitment to the country's security goes hand in hand with the goal of denuclearisation of the entire peninsula, as the White House recalled some time ago.

After the reassurances that have come in recent days, the debate in South Korea has died down and the government's public statements now tend to rule out the option of redeploying US nuclear weapons in the country. According to Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup, the government 'maintains the policy of pursuing denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula'. Yet few still believe this. According to polls, 92.5% of South Koreans believe that the North will not abandon its programme, while 55.5% support the development of a national nuclear arsenal.