Prefer own capability over reliance on U.S. . . .
A new survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows 71 per cent of South Koreans support their country developing a domestic nuclear weapons program, 15 points higher than those who support deploying U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory (56%). The gap widens considerably when respondents were asked to choose between the two options (67% vs. 9%, respectively). Interestingly, this support is not driven by doubts about the reliability of the U.S. in the event of an armed conflict with North Korea. Rather, support for a domestic nuclear weapons program tends to be higher among those confident in America’s alliance commitments to South Korea.
China seen as biggest future threat . . .
Another key finding is how South Koreans see their security environment changing. When asked to identify the biggest threat their country faces today, 46 per cent chose North Korea, followed by 33 per cent who chose China. When asked to project 10 years into the future, China surpasses North Korea – 56 per cent vs. 22 per cent. If recent history is any guide, South Korea should expect economic blowback from China if it were to become a nuclear-weapons state. When Seoul deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (an American anti-ballistic missile defence system) in 2017 in the face of North Korean missile threats, Beijing responded angrily, saying the system’s geographic range threatened its national security and sought to punish South Korean businesses of all stripes. However, when asked to consider such economic consequences, only 11 per cent of survey respondents moderated their views.
Candidates take notice . . .
These insights emerge at a significant moment in South Korean politics. The country elects a new president on March 9, with the two top contenders running neck-and-neck. Among those who support the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) candidate Lee Jae-myung, two-thirds (66%) want the country to develop its own nuclear weapons program. Among those who back Lee’s rival, Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative People Power Party (PPP), support rises to 81 per cent. The widest gap is among those who express “strong support” for the country developing its own nuclear weapons capability (29% of DPK supporters vs. 45% of PPP supporters). Regardless of who emerges as the winner, the Chicago poll’s findings will provide the new president plenty of food for thought.
- Chicago Council on Global Affairs: Thinking nuclear: South Korean attitudes on nuclear weapons
- The Diplomat: Nuclear proliferation concerns in East Asia: Beyond North Korea
- Washington Post: South Koreans overwhelmingly want nuclear weapons to confront China and North Korea, poll finds