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Nuclear arms enter S. Korean political debate as threats grow

Free Malaysia Today logo Free Malaysia Today 5/2/2023 Nikkei
South Korea’s ruling party said US nuclear weapons should be deployed if a nuclear attack by Pyongyang appeared imminent. (AP pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today South Korea’s ruling party said US nuclear weapons should be deployed if a nuclear attack by Pyongyang appeared imminent. (AP pic)

SEOUL: Nuclear weapons have entered political debate in South Korea as moves by China and North Korea push Seoul to consider all of its options — even one that could transform the security landscape in Asia.

In a November report circulated within South Korea’s ruling People Power Party, a special party committee suggested stationing a submarine armed with American nuclear missiles in the Sea of Japan.

US nuclear weapons should be deployed in South Korea and Japan if a nuclear attack by Pyongyang appears imminent, it said.

The report was cautious towards Seoul developing its own nuclear capabilities, focusing instead on boosting deterrence through the presence of US arms. But it urged an examination of the technology, time and cost needed for South Korea to develop its own nuclear arsenal.

“Deploying tactical nuclear weapons, or developing our own nuclear capabilities, is a possibility, but it is important for us to choose an option that is feasible,” South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol told foreign and defence ministry officials in January.

Such discussions come in response to the growing threat from Pyongyang. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently called for mass production of tactical nuclear weapons.

China is rapidly expanding its arsenal. Beijing’s stockpile of nuclear warheads has surpassed 400 and could reach 1,500 by 2035, the US defence department reported in November.

The US and Russia are each limited to 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers under their New START Treaty.

The US has not sent troops to Ukraine, in order to avoid triggering a wider clash with Russia. An expansion of China’s nuclear capabilities could impact how Washington responds to a crisis in the Asia-Pacific, including in the Taiwan Strait.

Washington is exploring options for extending deterrence in the Asia-Pacific. The US called for multilateral dialogue with South Korea, Japan and Australia in its nuclear posture review published in October.

Still, “there’s not a lot of advantage with tactical weapons deployed on the territories of South Korea and Japan, range-wise and capability-wise,” Randall Schriver, who was assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs under former US president Donald Trump, told Nikkei in a recent interview.

The growing arsenals of China and North Korea “should really compel us to discuss the full range of options, including deploying tactical weapons,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re at the point where we should be making that decision, yet.”

Hideya Kurata, a professor at Japan’s National Defense Academy, said that tactical nuclear weapons deployed at US bases in South Korea “could become targets” for the North’s short-range missiles.

“The US is reluctant about the idea,” he said.

Kurata warned against using excessive posturing as a means of deterrence.

“If the US retaliates against a North Korean tactical nuclear weapon by levelling Pyongyang, for example, North Korea will respond with a nuclear attack on Seoul, Tokyo and Washington — and that is not a reasonable choice for the US,” he said.

“Deterring North Korea from using a tactical nuclear weapon requires low-yield nuclear weapons that can’t easily be neutralised,” he said, citing nuclear-armed submarines.

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