South Korea declares nuclear weapons as policy option for the first time 23/01/2023 | Fabio Di Felice

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced for the first time that if North Korea’s nuclear threat grows, South Korea would consider building its own nuclear weapons or ask the United States to deploy its own on the Korean Peninsula. The announcement came out after a joint policy meeting with his Defense and Foreign Ministries; at this stage, it could be considered just a provocative message to North Korea and it is not an official policy yet, however, the alliance with the United States will be strengthened as “deterrence by denial” action. A possible nuclear weapons option, domestic or American, would switch from this kind of deterrence to a “deterrence by punishment”, which could easily escalate the situation in the peninsula creating a Cold War scenario in an already fragile area such as the Indo-Pacific. President Yoon’s comments marked the first time since Washington officially withdrew all its nuclear weapons from the South in 1991 that a South Korean official mentioned arming the country with nuclear weapons. The United States removed its nuclear weapons from the peninsula as a sign of dialogue and détente towards Pyongyang and as part of its global nuclear arms reduction efforts. President Yoon also added that, due to the advanced scientific and technological capabilities mastered by the country, a possible domestic option may be “pretty quick”. He specified that the latter could be developed as tactical nuclear weapons, with a limited range. It is important to underline the fact that South Korea is a signatory member of the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which bans the country from seeking nuclear weapons, leaving it could trigger international sanctions. By the way, Seoul also signed a joint declaration not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.” with North Korea which has ignored it by conducting 6 nuclear tests since 2006. Despite the support of the population, in accordance with some opinion surveys, South Korean President Yoon’s declaration raised some perplexities in Seoul policymakers, which consider the alliance with the United States, and their 28,500 troops in the country, a sufficient deterrent against the North. This new option, as anticipated, could heavily shift the paradigm in how to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat. US Government, which already forced South Korea to abandon a covert nuclear program in the 1970s, has not provided any official comments to the Premier’s statement which keeps unchanged Washington’s official policy to make the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

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