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South Korea’s Nuclear Flirtations Highlight the Growing Risks of Allied Proliferation

Carnegie Endowment, ERIC BREWER,  TOBY DALTON, FEBRUARY 13, 2023

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s January comments about his country possibly acquiring nuclear weapons adds to the mounting nuclear dangers in Asia. Though he subsequently walked back his statement, the underlying motives and risks remain that South Korea could one day decide to go nuclear.

Yoon’s nuclear threat also fueled a debate among security experts in Washington about how to respond. Many nonproliferation analysts highlighted the rarity of national leaders making public allusions to acquiring nuclear weapons and argued that the United States needs to remind South Korea of its commitments not to do so. Others highlighted the dangers of a rising tide of “nuclear populism” that is driving South Korea’s nuclear discourse.  Conversely, some analysts argued that there is little the United States can do to prevent an inevitable South Korean weapon and that it is better to reduce U.S. extended deterrence commitments in conflicts that exceed vital U.S. interests. A few go even further and suggest that Washington should welcome or even facilitate a nuclear-armed Seoul.

This debate indicates a very unsettled dynamic that American and other policymakers cannot wish away or ignore. Yoon’s comments may simply be the leading edge of a trend in nuclear flirtations by U.S. allies and partners.

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the United States has sought to stem the spread of nuclear weapons to adversaries and allies alike. This policy aims partly to preserve the U.S. nuclear advantage and to reduce the potential that nuclear weapons are used, which many experts judge increases if more states acquire them. Over the past few decades, the major proliferation fear has been about rogue actors: North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, or potentially terrorist groups. The United States and the international community developed a policy tool kit to address these threats, including sanctions, technology denial, and even cyber and military attacks on nuclear facilities. Today, however, an increasing proliferation risk comes from U.S. allies and partners worried about their security and the credibility of U.S. commitments to their defense…………………………………….more


February 13, 2023 - Posted by | South Korea, weapons and war

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