North Korean tests spark nuclear debate in the south

After launching its largest missile ever, North Korea prepares to conduct a nuclear test, officials and analysts say, reigniting a long-standing debate south of the border: Should Seoul also have nuclear weapons?

This year, Pyongyang conducted a blitz of sanctions-breaking weapons testing, including launching a full-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017.

It was a dramatic return to long-range testing after a hiatus of years as leader Kim Jong Un embarked on a failed diplomatic round with then-US President Donald Trump in 2018.

The renewed rattle of the North Korean saber, coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has changed the public mood in South Korea, with a growing demand for its own deterrent.

“Discussions have been circulating about the possibility of South Korea pursuing its own nuclear capability,” said Soo Kim of the RAND Corporation.

“The nuclear option is likely to remain on the table for decision makers in Seoul. But this, of course, will have implications and will go beyond the Korean peninsula. “

The discussion of whether South Korea should pursue nuclear weapons extends beyond official circles, and a majority of citizens also seem to support such a move.

71% of South Koreans now prefer the country to obtain nuclear weapons, according to a research paper released in February by the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Nuclear test expected

North Korea has tested nuclear weapons six times since 2006 and touted the success of its latest and most powerful bomb in 2017: a hydrogen bomb with an estimated yield of 250 kilotons.

Since North Korea’s ICBMs are still in development, there is a “high risk of failure every time,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Last month, a North Korean missile exploded in the skies over Pyongyang.

“This hinders Pyongyang’s style,” Cha said, adding that a nuclear test is less risky.

Another test is likely soon, South Korean officials and the top U.S. envoy to North Korea say, as part of founding leader Kim Il Sung’s 110th birthday celebrations on Friday.

Satellite images show signs of new activity in a tunnel at the Punggye-ri test site, which North Korea said was demolished in 2018 ahead of a Trump-Kim summit.

The Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network says it has identified signs of excavation and increased activity, indicating that North Korea could prepare it for a nuclear weapons test.

South Korean nuclear weapons

Seoul ran a covered nuclear program in the 1970s, ending up in exchange for security guarantees from the United States.

America is stationing 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect itself from its nuclear-armed neighbor and recently stepped up military displays, sending an aircraft carrier nearby this week for the first time since 2017.

Many commentators see “too clear” parallels with Ukraine’s fate: Kiev gave up its large stock of USSR-era nuclear weapons, over which it never had operational control, in exchange for security guarantees.

“A real war that we could not even imagine has broken out and has increased the importance of self-defense,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

For its seventh nuclear test, North Korea will likely seek to mount miniature nuclear warheads on its ICBMs with the goal of “reaching a point where no one can deny that it is a de facto nuclear power,” he said. affirmed.

Nuclear proliferation

Some South Korean politicians have proposed asking the United States to redistribute tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, something that US President Joe Biden has not shown much interest in according to analysts.

During the election campaign, South Korea’s hawkish new president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol opposed the idea, saying “strengthening US extended deterrence would be the answer.”

This would be “far less politically complicated, economically costly and regionally destabilizing than nuclear proliferation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University.

“The lesson of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not to go nuclear, but rather to strengthen the kind of defense alliances that Ukraine wanted but could not achieve,” he added.

But for many South Koreans, a US security guarantee is no longer enough.

While 56% of South Koreans support US nuclear weapons clearance in the country, the interviewed group “overwhelmingly” preferred an independent arsenal to the US deployment option, according to the February research paper.

“At this point, surely judging by public opinion in South Korea, it doesn’t seem enough to know that your friend has a button he can press,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow at the US-based Council on Foreign. relations

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