South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrives for a G20 summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrives for a G20 summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

(Photo: Mast Irham/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

​'Outrageous': South Korean President Under Fire for Considering Nuclear Weapons

"More nukes means a more dangerous world—period," said Global Zero. "We need diplomacy now."

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol stoked global alarm on Wednesday by suggesting for the first time that his country would consider building nuclear weapons or asking the United States to redeploy them in response to the threat posed by North Korea.

"It's possible that the problem gets worse and our country will introduce tactical nuclear weapons or build them on our own," Yoon said during a policy briefing with his defense and foreign ministries, according toThe New York Times. "If that's the case, we can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities."

"Adding more nuclear weapons into an already tense region is like pouring oil onto a grease fire."

South Korea, which previously had a nuclear program in the 1970s, would have to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop such arms. The United States—one of the nine official nuclear-armed nations—withdrew its nukes from the country in 1991.

That same year, both Koreas signed a joint declaration agreeing not to "test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons," but, as the Times noted, the North has since "reneged on the agreement by conducting six nuclear tests since 2006."

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts related to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—responded to the South Korean leader's comments on Thursday.

"Suggestions that rejecting agreed [international] law and norms to develop nuclear weapons are outrageous, and must be globally condemned," ICAN tweeted. "President Yoon Suk Yeol's remarks should be condemned, as should all nations that threaten to leave the NPT and develop nukes."

"Adding more nuclear weapons into an already tense region is like pouring oil onto a grease fire," ICAN continued. "All it does is increase the chances of a nuclear escalation."

Eliana Reynolds, a research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), stressed that "nuclear weapons are not necessary to deter nuclear weapons. Entertaining this discussion does more harm than good, especially since South Korea would be the second state to ever withdraw from the NPT to build nuclear weapons, the first of which was (you guessed it) North Korea."

Tom Z. Collina, director of policy at Ploughshares Fund and co-author, with former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, of The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race, said: "So, let's say the U.S. redeploys nuclear weapons to South Korea. Then North Korea responds by upping its arsenal, actions, and threats. What has been gained? There is no good end to this."

Multiple experts called on the United States—which has the world's second largest nuclear arsenal, after Russia, and is a key ally of South Korea—to dissuade Yoon's government from pursuing nukes.

Yoon's comments were "a signal to the United States, and also to fellow [South Korean] conservatives who've wanted to see this option on the table," said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The "U.S. must be clear that extended deterrence and [South Korean] nukes cannot coexist."

James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie program, tweeted that "I think the U.S. should make clear that allies that develop their own nuclear weapons in violation of their nonproliferation obligations shouldn't expect to continue benefiting from U.S. security guarantees."

After another expert noted that South Korea may first ditch the NPT before pursuing nuclear arms, Acton highlighted possible commitments to the U.S. and "the legal dubiousness of using equipment acquired under the treaty," then said that "the big point is that I'd support withdrawing extended guarantees from any ally that withdrew from the NPT."

Dartmouth College professor Nicholas Miller, author of Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy,suggested Thursday that Yoon may have made his nuclear remarks to influence negotiations.

"If South Korea decided to go nuclear, it would damage the NPT, trigger sanctions, threaten the alliance with the U.S., and provoke China and North Korea," Miller said. "Hence why I still tend to think it's unlikely and that these comments are for bargaining purposes."

"If South Korea decided to go nuclear, it would damage the NPT, trigger sanctions, threaten the alliance with the U.S., and provoke China and North Korea."

The Korea Heraldreported Thursday that a presidential official signaled South Korea's intention to continue abiding by the NPT and said that Yoon's remarks should be understood as the president "stating his firm commitment amid the escalating threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons."

"The most important part of his comments yesterday was that, as a realistic measure at the moment, it's important to effectively strengthen extended deterrence within the security alliance between South Korea and the United States," the official said. "However, when it comes to security, the worst-case scenario must always be taken into consideration and from that perspective, he was making his commitment and determination ever clearer to protect the people as commander-in-chief against the escalating threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons."

During an Associated Pressinterview Tuesday at the presidential office in Seoul, Yoon also asserted that North Korean missile tests and nuclear ambitions pose a "serious threat," saying that "North Korea could have its own internal reasons, but there's no way for our country or any other country to know exactly why they are conducting such provocations."

According to the AP, "The conservative leader reiterated his call for closer security cooperation with the United States and Japan to counter the 'dangerous situation' being created by North Korea as he played down the prospect for direct negotiations like those pursued by his liberal predecessor."

"We've seen a miscalculation leading to serious wars many times in history," Yoon said. "These unlawful North Korean provocations can only result in the strengthening of [South Korea's] security response capabilities and a further strengthening of the security cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan."

As the AP detailed:

In a recent newspaper interview, Yoon cited discussions with the U.S. about joint planning potentially involving U.S. nuclear assets.

Asked for further clarity Tuesday, he said the proposed plans include "tabletop exercises, computer simulations, and drills... on delivery means for nuclear weapons."

"The discussions are under way over the so-called joint planning and joint execution, and I think it's right for South Korea and the United States to cooperate because both of us are exposed to the North Korean nuclear threat," Yoon said.

After the Wednesday briefing that featured Yoon's nuclear comments, Lee Jong-sup, South Korea's defense minister, confirmed that his country and the United States are "planning to hold tabletop exercises in February between defense officials on operating means of extended deterrence under the scenario of North Korea's nuclear attacks."

Reutersreported that Lee also said the countries plan to scale up annual joint field training this year and that the U.S. is willing to "drastically expand" the scope of sensitive information shared because of the "need for it between the two sides, given that North Korea's nuclear threat has become serious not only to South Korea but also to the United States."

Meanwhile, peace advocates worldwide continue to demand diplomatic efforts. Last month, civil society groups called on Yoon, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Joseph Biden "to stop the destructive arms race, take steps now to prevent a potentially catastrophic war, and set the table for peace talks," arguing that "diplomacy is the only way to resolve this conflict."

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