South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol
When South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and President Joe Biden meet in Washington on Wednesday, the expanding North Korean threat and South Korea's security concerns are anticipated to be high on the agenda. Phot by: Reuters/Daewoung Kim

A craftsman in the port city of Busan, South Korea, named Kim Kwan-jung has long been a fan of the United States. He noted that the United States and South Korea have a long history of friendship and that American forces assisted in the Korean War's victory over the communist North.

But seventy years later, with the two nations still nominally at war and South Korea coming under increasing pressure from the North, which has nuclear weapons, skepticism is beginning to surface.

"If North Korea invaded now, I don't know if we can assume that America would protect us again," said Kim, 65.

Kim suggested that South Korea could create its nuclear weapons as a potential response to the escalating threats.

When President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol meet in Washington on Wednesday, the expanding North Korean threat and South Korea's security concerns are anticipated to be high on the agenda.

Kim used to have a limited perspective. According to a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations last year, 71% of South Koreans now believe their nation should develop its nuclear weapons, even though the United States has pledged to defend South Korea, a treaty ally hosting 28,500 American troops, from an attack with its nuclear weapons if necessary.

As negotiations on its denuclearization efforts stalled in 2018, North Korea launched a record number of ballistic missiles, and its leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to increase the country's nuclear arsenal and threatened to use it against the South.

While some experts say that North Korea is using the weapons tests to alleviate sanctions imposed by the United States, others think the launches are intended to erode the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

As part of the U.S. endeavor to fortify its overall defense posture in the Asia-Pacific area in response to a growing challenge from China, the U.S. and South Korea have increased joint military drills in the region to oppose North Korea's increasing aggression.

But the idea of a nuclear-armed South Korea has support even among people who are confident in the U.S. alliance, the 2022 poll displayed.

Numerous respondents mentioned dangers besides North Korea, such as China, which the US claims is also increasing its nuclear weapons.

Similar levels of support are found in more recent surveys: Over 76% of the population, according to a survey conducted by Gallup Korea in late 2017 and released this month by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, support nuclear weaponry.

Rep. Lee Jae-Jung, a left-leaning member who opposes nuclear weaponry, claimed that South Koreans have begun to think about their obligation to defend themselves as a result of Washington's attention on other matters, such as the possibility of conflict with China over Taiwan.

"The fact that the nuclear-armed North is not a priority for the Biden administration makes the Koreans nervous," she said.

A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea remained "ironclad."

"The Yoon administration has made clear that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program and that it is working closely with the United States through existing extended deterrence mechanisms," the spokesperson said.

There are several reasons, according to experts, why South Korea won't be gaining nuclear weapons anytime soon.

The NPT, also known as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, forbids nations from pursuing nuclear weapons, and South Korea's withdrawal from it could result in international sanctions.

The U.S., South Korea's traditional defense guarantor, and China, its biggest trading partner, would undoubtedly become enraged if South Korea began to arm itself with nuclear weapons.

A nuclear-armed South Korea may also encourage other nations in the region, like Australia and Japan, to build up their own arsenals.

"Anybody who genuinely believes that South Korea will get its own nuclear weapons has absolutely no idea what they're talking about," said Jung Se-Hyon, a former unification minister, reports NBC News.

"But the robust support for proliferation does speak to the Korean people's fears of conflict," he added, "and the South Korean public just doesn't trust what the Americans are saying right now."

According to official U.S. policy, the entire Korean Peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons, hence Washington would not support South Korea with nuclear weapons.

Others contend that it should re-deploy the tactical nuclear weapons it removed from the nation at the end of the Cold War or begin sharing its nuclear weapons with South Korea.

"South Korea is actually staying naked without nuclear weapons, and I have long argued that we need nuclear parity on this peninsula, regardless of the consequences," said Kim Tae-woo, who was an adviser to conservative former President Lee Myung-bak.

South Korea previously tried to acquire nuclear weapons in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon considered withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, said Ellen Kim, the deputy Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"What is different now is that there's a nuclear-armed North Korea that threatens to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear South Korea," Kim said, "and North Korea continues to advance its nuclear missile capability."

Some South Koreans worry that the U.S. may desert them in a battle with North Korea because North Korea is testing weapons that are thought to be capable of striking any place in the country. Others worry that the US will make a mistake and drag them into a potential nuclear conflict with China or North Korea.

Having its nuclear arsenal, supporters say, would allow South Korea to decide whether and when it fights a nuclear war.

Additionally, there is a worry that American forces would eventually be removed, as suggested by former President Donald Trump.

That cocktail of uncertainty, Kim said, is "driving South Korea's nuclear debate."

Rep. Jang Hye-yeong, a member of the progressive Justice Party, said South Koreans have not fully debated the pros and cons of nuclear armament because the subject is still somewhat taboo.

"If we as a country really have an honest discussion about the risks of developing our own nuclear arsenal, I believe the public's support will decrease," she said.

Reassurance, according to several South Koreans, is what they seek most of all.

"North Korea is firing more missiles, China could invade Taiwan, and politics in the United States are very unstable right now," said Lee Hak-joon, 24, a public affairs student at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. "The United States needs to show us that we can really rely on them to protect us."

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