38 North

Nuclear Weapons in South Korea? Not So Fringe Anymore.

the Biden administration needs to re-examine the current deterrence arrangements and modify it to better address the changing security environment

August 21, 2021

This opinion piece was originally published in The National Interest

Don’t be taken aback if one of the hottest issues for South Korea’s upcoming presidential election is nuclear weapons—more specifically, the need for South Korea to possess its own. While North Korea has refrained from nuclear weapons testing since 2017, the progress they demonstrated in the past has moved the nuclear debate to the forefront of South Korean society. This year, Kim Jong-un’s remarks about strengthening the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear arsenal delivered at the recent Eighth Party Congress was enough for South Korean conservatives to once again stand in favor of developing their own nuclear weapons. With the South Korean presidential election in March 2022 quickly approaching, political discourse in Seoul about nuclear armament is a trend not to be ignored by the U.S. government.

Hawkish voices in favor of nuclearization in South Korea are not new. Since 2006, the year of DPRK’s first nuclear test, the South Korean public and right-leaning politicians have consistently voiced concerns about South Korea’s national security in the context of an unpredictable and nuclear North Korea. Key members of leading conservative parties over the years have often cited the tenuous credibility of America’s extended deterrence and the asymmetrical security environment on the Korean Peninsula—with the Republic of Korea (ROK) only possessing conventional weapons—as reasons to pursue nuclear options. Such options range from the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, a “NATO-style” nuclear-sharing agreement with the United States, or even an indigenous nuclear arsenal. 

Read the full op-ed in The National Interest.

William Kim is a researcher at the Stimson Center’s 38 North Program. A graduate of Boston College, he has previously worked with Congressman Adam Smith and the House Armed Services Committee.

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