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The (South) Korean Nuclear Threat

13 Apr 2023
By Dr Jeffrey Robertson
President Yoon, Suk-yeol spends time with Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division/ROK-U.S. Combined Division at Camp Humphreys, Republic of Korea. Source: Cpl. Seong-yeon Kang/

South Korea is in the midst of a debate to secure nuclear weapons and few outside realise the seriousness and level of the debate. Few inside realise the question is much bigger than just South Korea, with great implications for the region, including Australia. 

Debate on securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity once sat on the fringe of mainstream politics in Seoul. The extreme left and right, ex-military, religionists, and mavericks seeking attention were its champions. This is no longer the case. Today it is widely accepted, even common. Polls taken over the last year put public support in the 70-80 percent range. Securing nuclear weapons is now mainstream, viable, and if trends continue, even likely.

What makes South Korea want nuclear weapons? There’s a ready response from those pushing the agenda. North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and concerns regarding a rising China. Each can readily be used to justify the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yet, each are just squalls on the surface of the sea. Underneath, more powerful currents are pushing the pursuit of nuclear weapons: national pride, the desire to be more independent, and a healthy dose of domestic political opportunism.

National pride is a core contributor to the decision to pursue nuclear weapons. For both Koreas, there’s a keen sense of historical injustice marked by invasions from all sides, including occupation, and division. For South Koreans, there’s also a competitive streak that stretches from the individual to the national desire to be number one. There’s even speculation that the U.S. would be willing to allow Seoul to secure nuclear weapons in order for it to play a larger role in balancing China, placing South Korea at a new level of partnership with Washington. Among many, securing a nuclear weapons capacity provokes a certain element of national pride: more than just a middle power – a member of the nuclear weapons club.

The desire to be more independent is also an important contributing factor. Donald Trump, and the fear of a second Trump administration, may have given the extra push, but the desire for greater independence is much older. From the earliest negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea to secure agreement on a Korean War ceasefire, Seoul fought not just for the promise of U.S. support in the event of another North Korean invasion, but also for the capability to make its own decisions. Since the 1950s, South Korea clawed back this capability, steadily removing U.S. restrictions on its armed forces and building an independent armed forces capacity. It is now a leading global arms supplier, ship (and submarine) builder, has an indigenous jet fighter program, and is developing its own military satellite and missile defense programs.

South Korea is now the tenth largest economy in the world. The desire for a greater capability to act independently is an inevitable trend – and some see nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of independent action.

Domestic political opportunism is the icing on the cake. Already, civic groups with professors, former public servants, students, journalists, and other budding politicians have emerged to push for an independent nuclear weapons capacity. Ostensibly, such groups are formed to coordinate and educate citizens on nuclear weapons. In reality, they are used to pursue political power. They exploit latent nationalism with popular concerns and fears, exacerbate and muddy debate, and ultimately position group leaders into positions of political power. Any subject that mixes national pride and independence is ripe for exploitation. The current president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has made remarks supporting the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the Mayor of Seoul – a position that is a stepping stone to the presidency – has also stated his support. Nuclear weapons will see multiple candidates jump on the bandwagon in the lead-up to the April 2024 legislative elections, and likely more than one candidate in the 2027 presidential elections.

Proliferation, from France to North Korea, is a story of national pride, independence, and political opportunism. South Korea is no different.

It is likely the consequences of this momentous decision to pursue an independent nuclear weapons capacity have not been fully thought through. The short to medium-term impact can be easily ascertained. South Korea will face global condemnation and potentially political and economic sanctions. Yet, South Korea’s diplomatic credentials as a state that exercises substantial restraint may also give pause for thought. So, too, will its role in global supply chains. In the current political climate, a well-coordinated diplomatic campaign, demonstrating that much of the blame lies not in Seoul but in Pyongyang and its enablers, could limit sanction severity and longevity.

In the 1960s, Australia made the decision to forego nuclear weapons in the context of a global diplomatic and strategic understanding that proliferation could be controlled. Since that time, debates about Australia securing nuclear weapons have arisen, but they’ve never been mainstream. Debates in recent years have been more brain-storming and speculation than serious policy-specific programming. A South Korean decision to pursue nuclear weapons would substantially transform strategic outlooks across the region and lead to a more serious debate in Australia. The current nuclear submarine debate would look like a Sunday School picnic.

Jeffrey Robertson is an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University and a Visiting Fellow at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. He researches the diplomatic practice and foreign policy of middle powers with a focus on the Korean Peninsula. He writes and updates research at and on Twitter @junotane. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.