On March 5, with South Korea’s elections less than a week away, North Korea fired a single ballistic missile towards the East Sea, marking the ninth missile test already this year. While the two front-runners of this election, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DPK) and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition conservative People Power Party (PPP), are locked in a tight race, North Korea’s military provocations are unlikely to considerably impact the electoral outcome regardless of the motives behind Pyongyang’s resumed missile activism. This is mostly because in the past few weeks, South Korea’s domestic political scene has been dominated by heated debates on economic and social issues, from the housing market to gender and generational divide caused by rising misogyny amid personal accusations and corruption scandals involving candidates or their relatives. While public attention is overwhelmingly focused on those issues, relatively little space is left for such an old and familiar issue as North Korea’s military buildup. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that South Koreans are not conscious of the threats from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Under President Park Chung-hee, South Korea attempted to pursue its own domestic nuclear weapons programme. However, following US pressure, the project was suspended and in 1975, South Korea joined the NPT as a non-nuclear state. On several occasions, Seoul officially refused to (re-)consider a nuclear option. By December 1991, US tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korean soil. Since then, Washington has ruled out any options to redeploy tactical nukes to South Korea. However, pro-nuclear sentiments among ordinary South Koreans have not vanished in light of North Korea’s growing nuclear capacity, regardless of the official position of the South Korean government. For many years, data from public opinion polls have found that the majority of South Koreans have constantly supported nuclear armaments to guarantee national defense. For instance, between 2010 and 2013, Asan Institute’s annual surveys registered a steady increase in public support for a domestic nuclear weapons programme: 56 percent in 2010, 63 percent in 2011, and 66 percent in 2013. Unsurprisingly, following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, Gallup Korea found that 60 percent of respondents agreed that “South Korea should retain nuclear weapons” while only 35 percent disagreed.
Last month, a polling research published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs confirmed this long-standing robust orientation towards nuclear weapons in South Korea; 71 percent of respondents supported South Korea’s development of its own nuclear weapons, while 56 percent argued for the deployment of US nuclear weapons instead. What makes these findings interesting is that the poll was conducted in December 2021, in the absence of North Korea’s nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests, unlike some other earlier polls. Still, even without being exposed to North Korea’s belligerent behavior, a majority of South Koreans still believes that South Korea needs to acquire its own nuclear weapons.
There are other interesting findings from this Chicago Council poll. The South Korean public clearly prefers an independent nuclear arsenal (67 percent) over the redeployment of US tactical nukes (9 percent) when asked to choose between these two options. A majority of respondents (55 percent) also agreed with the claim that “China will be the biggest threat to South Korea in ten years.” Although the same poll shows that a significant percentage of the public (61 percent) still has confidence in US defense commitments to South Korea, the ambition for autonomous nuclear policy combined with a growing threat perception from China could complicate future talks on nuclear deterrence within the US-ROK alliance, amid changes in the geopolitical and domestic contexts.
The two front-runners, Lee and Yoon, do not have particular experience in the foreign policy realm, and their campaign pledges in the fields of security and nuclear issues have been rather vague, nothing more than slogans. More specific policy directions will take shape once key positions such as foreign and defense ministers and national security advisor are filled within the new administration. However, the combination of growing populism in Korean society and long-standing pro-nuclear sentiment might increase the possibility of nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula if an inexperienced or populist political leader sits in the Blue House. For instance, Lee’s recent controversial remarks about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sparked criticism, underscoring a lack of understanding of the nature of this war while trying to capitalize on it for his own political interest. Meanwhile, Yoon said last year that he would request Washington to redeploy tactical nukes to South Korea or support a nuclear-sharing deal. Such scenario was promptly denied by a US State Department official. Yoon’s position about a preemptive attack on North Korea also triggered criticisms and concerns among experts and other politicians in South Korea.
As a way to win support from a significant number of young male voters active on social media, who are becoming anti-feminist and misogynistic, Yoon suddenly posted one short phrase, “Abolition of Ministry of Gender Equality and Family”, on his Facebook page without any further explanations. This type of impetuous approach to critical and complicated issues in the era of growing populism undeniably raises serious concerns about South Korea’s future choices with regard to defense policies. The denuclearization of North Korea is not likely to happen in the near future. Ukraine, a country that gave up Soviet-era nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, has been invaded by Russia, a nuclear state. The military capacity of another nuclear neighbor, China, has significantly improved while South Korea’s bilateral tensions with China continue. Under these circumstances, one might wonder whether South Korea’s political leaders will be fit for the job and capable enough to handle pressures from their domestic constituencies.