South Koreans Push for Nuclear Weapons, Potentially Destabilizing a Volatile Region

Storming through a lake near the heavily armed border in CHEORWON, South Korea, amphibious tanks blast through the water, accompanied by a chorus of gunfire and smoke. South Korean and U.S. combat engineers work diligently to construct a pontoon bridge and transport armored vehicles, all while under the looming threat of North Korean artillery.

For 70 years, both nations have conducted annual military exercises to deter aggression from North Korea. However, South Koreans have begun to lose faith in the United States’ ability to protect them due to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities. The fear is that in the event of an attack, the U.S. President might hesitate to use nuclear weapons, putting millions of Koreans at risk.

Polls show that a strong majority of South Koreans support their nation acquiring atomic weapons or the return of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea to address this growing concern. This surprising erosion of trust signifies a significant shift in the alliance between the two nations.

The broader debate surrounding nuclear weapons has seen a rise in support for South Korea to pursue its own nuclear arsenal. This concern has only been exacerbated by the alarming global arms race, as well as North Korea’s ongoing weapons advancements, including its recent ballistic missile tests.

Despite the U.S.’s long-standing commitment to South Korea, the idea of South Korea obtaining nuclear weapons is no longer taboo. President Yoon Suk Yeol has made it clear that his nation will consider acquiring nuclear weapons if the situation worsens. The U.S. has pledged to strengthen consultations with South Korea on nuclear planning and has sent more nuclear assets to the Korean Peninsula as reassurance.

The ongoing uncertainty is credited to the presidency of Donald Trump, who had a transactional approach to alliances and openly questioned the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. This uncertainty has only been compounded by North Korea’s advancements in nuclear weapons and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All of these factors have contributed to a mounting desire among South Koreans for their nation to acquire its own nuclear deterrent.


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