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Why South Korea and Japan Should Overcome the Nuclear Weapons Taboo

Under increasing threat from Pyongyang, South Korea is thinking about possessing nuclear weapons. The subject has been taboo in Japan, but will that change?



North Korea launched another missile on January 14, 2024. (Korean Central News Agency ©KCNA)

I recently heard something startling from someone at a South Korean policy institute. A researcher there told me it is only a matter of time before South Korea goes nuclear. This analyst explained that denuclearizing North Korea is a pipedream. Six out of ten South Koreans believe Seoul must possess its own nuclear weapons

In July 2022, the South and North Development (SAND), a research institute, conducted a survey on public opinion about nuclear development. According to its results, 74% of South Koreans were in favor of their country developing its own nuclear weapons rather than relying solely on the United States for their protection.

Many experts in the security field had previously rejected the idea of independent nuclear development as "suicidal." Now, this researcher tells me they support the idea. 

Dr Seong-Chang Cheong, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Seijong Research Institute, in Tokyo on February 1. (© Sankei by Yuki Ishikawa)

Past Talk of Nuclearization

One of the leading researchers advocating South Korean possession of nuclear weapons is Dr Seong-Chang Cheong. Dr Cheong is the president of the ROK Forum for Nuclear Strategy (ROKFNS). He is also the director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Sejong Institute

In his recent book, Cheong mapped out a detailed path towards the country's nuclear armament. His plan stipulates that if North Korea conducts its seventh nuclear test, South Korea would withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). And if Pyongyang does not agree to denuclearization negotiations within six months, Seoul would begin developing nuclear weapons. 

All South Korea needs now to possess nuclear weapons, he says, is for a strong leader to emerge. 

In fact, South Korea has a history of considering nuclear weapons. It goes back to President Park Chung-hee's strong leadership in the late 1960s. In July 1969, US President Richard Nixon announced the "Nixon Doctrine." It stated that Asian countries should be responsible for their own security and mentioned withdrawing US forces from South Korea. South Korea's secret nuclear weapons development program dates to that time.

First Reason to Consider Nuclearization

Now it appears South Koreans are once again seriously considering the possession of nuclear weapons. There are three possible reasons for this. 


First, because it is the only way to counter North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang has insisted that its nuclear program is a means of warding off the US. But recently, it has explicitly threatened to use these weapons to attack South Korea. 

The US has warned that Kim Jong Un's regime will fall if he launches a nuclear attack on South Korea. Crucially, however, Washington has not specified when or exactly how it would retaliate. 

Additional Reasons

Securing peace in the region is the second potential reason. Since World War II, there has been no all-out war between nuclear powers. If South Korea were to go nuclear, North Korea's threats would lose credibility.

On this point, former US President Bill Clinton delivered an interesting comment in an April 2023 interview with Irish media. Clinton said Ukraine made a mistake in turning over its nuclear warheads, long-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and strategic bombers to Russia. He added that had Ukraine held onto its nuclear stockpile after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia would probably not have invaded.

Third, nuclearization is inevitable for South Korea in the long run. Despite the downsides, analysts at ROKFNS argue that possessing nuclear weapons is in the national interest. South Korea is no longer the country it was in the 1960s. It is now both an economic and military superpower. Even the US needs South Korea economically and militarily, they argue. 

Dr Seong-Chang Cheong, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Seijong Research Institute, in Tokyo on February 1. (© Sankei by Yuki Ishikawa)

Many Issues

To take this step, though, Seoul would first have to withdraw from the NPT. As a nation that relies heavily on foreign trade, this would isolate South Korea from the international community. Its economy would quickly feel sanctions from China, which accounts for over 20% of its trade. 

In addition, the US could also impose sanctions. Furthermore, South Korea imports almost all of its nuclear fuel. The inability to generate nuclear power could devastate its economy. 

However, the analysts also point out that America's thinking is changing. This is indicated in a March 2016 interview with former President Donald Trump in The New York Times. During this presidential campaign interview, Trump acknowledged that it was understandable if Japan and South Korea would want their own nuclear deterrence to defend themselves against North Korea and China rather than relying solely on the US. It was, he said, "a position that we have to talk about." 

Why Japan Should Also Nuclearize

Without strong opposition from the US government, it might not be long before South Korea goes nuclear. Then, if South Korea nuclearizes, Japan would be the only non-nuclear power among the major East Asian nations. 


China has ostensibly taken a stand against North Korea's nuclear program. But Beijing simply fears its nuclear provocations will give Japan an excuse to nuclearize. Should Japan even begin earnest discussions on nuclearization, China might seriously attempt to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons. 

In Japan, which has adhered to the three non-nuclear principles, even debate on nuclear weapons is taboo. However, the security environment in which Japan finds itself is similar to that of South Korea. 

In his book Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor, French President de Gaulle reflected on his nuclear weapons program. Initially, de Gaulle faced stiff US opposition to the program. 

He wrote of a telling exchange with President John F Kennedy on the matter. He wrote, "[Kennedy] affirmed America would certainly resort to them [atomic weapons] rather than allow Western Europe to fall into the hands of the Soviets." Despite this, de Gaulle said Kennedy "was unable to tell me at what point and against what targets, near or far, strategic or tactical, inside or outside Russia itself, the missiles would in fact be launched." 

Japan's current security environment is even more precarious than Cold War-era France. Nor is there any guarantee that US policy towards Asia will stay the same forever. 

What if Japan and South Korea were to cooperate on the possession of nuclear weapons, only as much as needed for the sake of East Asia's power balance? Wouldn't that make achieving such a power balance more likely to become a reality?  


Professor Sotetsu Lee

(Read the Sankei Seiron column in Japanese.)

Author: Sotetsu Lee, Professor, Ryukoku University


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