Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016, several prominent politicians and pundits in South Korea (the Republic of Korea or ROK) renewed calls for Seoul to pursue its own nuclear option. Leading the chorus was Representative Won Yoo-chul, the National Assembly floor leader from the ruling Saenuri Party, who called on South Koreans to “think about our own survival strategy and countermeasures that include peaceful nuclear and missile programs for the sake of self-defense.”

Sentiments such as Won’s are not new. Indeed, some of the same individuals made similar arguments following the previous North Korean nuclear test in 2013. However, the scope and scale of discussion seems different in 2016, with a substantial increase in media attention in particular. Does this indicate a shift in the policy debate in South Korea toward a more serious exploration of nuclear weapons acquisition? Was it merely an attempt by conservative South Korean politicians to play up the North Korea threat prior to the April 13 general election? Or is it intended more as a signal to Washington that Seoul wants greater reassurance from the United States about its commitment to the U.S.–South Korea defense alliance?

Antecedents

Advances in Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons and long-range-missile capabilities understandably spark security fears among South Koreans. Following North Korea’s first nuclear explosion test in 2006, some South Korean politicians began to question the viability of the U.S.-ROK alliance and raise the possibility that Seoul might eventually need its own nuclear arsenal. For instance, then representative Lee Hoi-chang, previously a conservative candidate for president, cautioned, “If North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons becomes a fact, the U.S.-Korea alliance deteriorates, and surrounding nations such as Japan show signs of nuclear armament, we need to consider a nuclear armament in the long run.” Such views reappeared following subsequent North Korean nuclear tests in 2009, 2013, and now 2016.

The driver of these views among some South Koreans is the fear that once North Korea is able to target the United States with nuclear weapons, the alliance could become decoupled.1 That is, a credible North Korean threat against the United States could deter Washington from coming to Seoul’s aid in a crisis, thus rendering U.S. security pledges impotent. Such concerns about the brittleness of the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security arise periodically and almost cyclically, rekindled by North Korean threats or periods of tension in the alliance.2 Indeed, South Korea’s previous exploration of a nuclear weapons option during the Park Chung-hee administration in the 1970s was driven explicitly by concerns about abandonment by the United States.3

Many South Koreans, including politicians who support a nuclear option, believe that Seoul cannot rely on security promises from Washington in perpetuity. Even though 28,500 American military personnel remain stationed with U.S. Forces Korea, these troops and the U.S. commitment they symbolize seem insufficiently permanent to allay fears of U.S. disengagement. Additional U.S. reassurance efforts do not seem to have eased public concerns of abandonment. Statements such as those by U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump calling into question the future U.S. presence in South Korea underscore and perhaps even amplify such doubts. As a consequence, some South Koreans assert that the country must develop a greater capability to protect itself.

A Growing Debate?

The latest North Korean nuclear test in January initiated a new round of discussion about South Korea’s nuclear options. In addition to mainstream South Korean media, both the New York Times and the Washington Post covered the ROK debate story. But greater attention does not necessarily indicate growing support for possessing nuclear weapons, among either the South Korean public or the political elite. To assess how the discourse has evolved between the 2013 and 2016 nuclear tests, and whether that evolution might suggest a shift in the seriousness and direction of the debate, we sought to answer three questions: Is support for a nuclear option growing among the political elite? How has South Korean media covered the issue? And what do public opinion polls indicate?

Consistent Political Support

To assess the sentiment of political elites, we searched for public statements on the nuclear debate by serving representatives in the National Assembly, other elected politicians, and prominent former politicians. In the months following the North Korean nuclear test in February 2013, eight politicians made statements in support of a South Korean nuclear option, most notably among them then representative and presidential aspirant Chung Mong-joon. Since the January 2016 nuclear test, exactly the same number of politicians—eight—have made similarly supportive statements. Of these, three repeated their support from 2013, and five made such statements for the first time. (Presumably, politicians who previously stated support for a nuclear option retain this view, but chose not to speak publicly in 2016.)

Politicians Supporting Nuclear Options

Won Yoo-chul (Saenuri Party)
“We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor whenever it rains; we must be prepared and wear our own raincoat.”

Hong Jun-pyo (Saenuri Party)
“Against the North, which claims it will develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on top of a hydrogen bomb, redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to Korean Peninsula is necessary.”

Kim Jung-hoon (Saenuri Party)
“In preparation against Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear arms, [South Korea] should at least have capabilities sufficient enough to build nukes at any time.”

Roh Chul-rae (Saenuri Party)
“[South Korea needs to] go further than installing THAAD [a missile defense system], we need to develop nuclear weapons and arm with nuclear weapons. . . . Even if we declare nuclear development and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we need to make a bargaining chip to break through the current situation.”

Politicians Opposed to Nuclear Weapons Possession

Kim Moo-sung (Saenuri Party)
“Rep. Won was expressing his own personal opinion. The party has not taken an official position on the matter yet.”

Yoon Sang-hyun (Saenuri Party)
“‘Let’s obtain nuclear weapons’ is easy to say. But it is an irresponsible statement. . . . [Nuclear armament] would break the NPT . . . and we would be isolating ourselves.”

Ahn Cheol-soo (People’s Party)
“Possession of nuclear weapons could cause nuclear dominos in Northeast Asia and consequently opens up a path to nuclear armament by Japan and an armament race by China, and escalation of military tension in the Northeast Asia is inevitable.”

Lee Jong-kul (Minjoo Party)
“[Saenuri] have brought up an irresponsible chauvinist nuclear armament theory. That is outdated nationalistic populism.”

Tracking these statements reveals a lack of consistency about what constitutes a nuclear option in the South Korean discourse. For some politicians, such as Saenuri Party Representative Kim Jung-hoon, this term seems to be coded language for a nuclear hedging posture, principally the capability to carry out plutonium reprocessing that could be used to build nuclear weapons if needed in the future. This option dovetails with Seoul’s successful effort to gain U.S. support for extending the range of South Korea’s ballistic missile, as well as support among some politicians and media pundits for greater sovereignty in South Korea’s nuclear affairs.

Others argue for a second option: the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were removed from South Korean territory in 1991. For instance, Hong Jun-pyo, the governor of Kyungnam province, supports this option, arguing that “against the North, which claims it will develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on top of a hydrogen bomb, redeployment of U.S tactical nuclear weapons to Korean Peninsula is necessary.” It is unclear from these statements whether tactical nuclear weapons are believed to provide security benefits or are intended more as a bargaining chip, either in negotiation with North Korea or in signaling to Washington.

Finally, a few politicians make direct appeals for South Korea to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and develop its own nuclear weapons. Representative Roh Chul-rae exemplifies this view: South Korea needs to “go further than installing THAAD [a missile defense system], we need to develop nuclear weapons and arm with nuclear weapons. . . . Even if we declare nuclear development and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we need to make a bargaining chip to break through the current situation.” Similarly, Representative Won Yoo-chul suggests that “we cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor whenever it rains; we must be prepared and wear our own raincoat.”

Growing Media Attention

Although the level of elite political support for a nuclear option remains essentially unchanged, notwithstanding the addition of five new voices, popular media coverage of the discussion has increased significantly since 2013. To assess this change, we compared op-eds, editorials, and interviews appearing in a sample of eleven South Korean news outlets representing the spectrum of political views in the two months following the 2013 and 2016 North Korean nuclear tests.4 The results indicate a doubling of coverage in 2016. Importantly, the views expressed are split relatively evenly between pro- and anti-nuclear views.5 This increase is similar to the growth in the number of nuclear-weapon-related stories featured in news broadcasts on the three major South Korean television networks over the same periods, suggesting that the doubling of coverage is not simply an artifact of our media sample.6

A related development in 2016 is the appearance of more directly worded editorials and op-eds in conservative newspapers endorsing a nuclear option. In 2013, newspapers tended to be more circumspect. A February 22, 2013, Chosun Ilbo editorial, for example, gave only implicit support, stipulating “South Koreans must have the courage to publicly discuss the prospect of the country acquiring nuclear weapons.” A January 28, 2016, editorial in the same paper, in contrast, concluded that “Seoul now faces a real need for public discussion of the development of its own nuclear weapons. If the public wants the country to arm itself with nuclear weapons, the government will simply have to scrap a joint declaration from 1991 to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and initiate talks with the U.S. to obtain the right to enrich uranium and reprocess its own spent nuclear fuel rods.”

This coverage is not specific to Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest daily newspaper. For instance, Munhwa Ilbo, another conservative paper, ran an editorial on February 16, 2016, exhorting, “Now it’s time to publicize the ‘independent nuclear armament.’” Among conservative newspapers, JoongAng Ilbo stands apart with editorials critical of the debate and fretting about the consequences.

Declining Public Support

Contrary to the effective doubling of media coverage in 2016 as compared to 2013, public support for the nuclear option seems to have decreased. Moreover, polling in 2016 shows considerable variability regarding support for nuclear possession, casting doubt on earlier polling that seems to show consistent support in excess of 60 percent.

The most valid comparison of public attitudes between the two periods comes from Gallup Korea, which administered polls within two weeks of the 2013 and 2016 nuclear tests using consistent questions and an identical methodology. Those polls, which have equivalent margins of error, show an unambiguous overall decline in support for South Korean nuclear weapons possession from 64 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in 2016. That is matched by a ten-point increase in opposition, from 28 percent to 38 percent (see figure 1). The polls also reveal a decline in the percentage of respondents who view the North Korean nuclear tests as threatening to peace on the Korean Peninsula, from 76 percent in 2013 to 61 percent in 2016 (see figure 2). This drop is unexpected given North Korea’s claim that it tested a hydrogen bomb in 2016, indicating a qualitative increase in the lethality of its weapons design.

Assessing public opinion on these issues by party preference shows a more exaggerated trend. Supporters of the ruling conservative Saenuri Party are still very likely to perceive North Korean nuclear weapons testing as threatening, down to a still-high 71 percent in 2016 from 82 percent in 2013. And support for ROK nuclear possession among the same constituency remains high, despite falling from 74 percent to 62 percent. But supporters of opposition parties show a much more significant decline in concern about North Korea’s nuclear test—just 48 percent view it as threatening in 2016, compared to 73 percent in 2013. Though the drop is less pronounced, now only a minority of this group supports a nuclear option: 59 percent to 47 percent. These figures may suggest that for conservative politicians, supporting a nuclear option may yield populist dividends, but less so for opposition politicians.

Another set of polls from February 2016 by KBS, South Korea’s largest public broadcasting company, and JoongAng Ilbo, one of the top three daily newspapers, provide more nuanced data about the instability of public preferences on nuclear possession (see figure 3). These two polls, taken within two days of each other with similar sample sizes and methodologies, demonstrate the potential for substantial variation based on polling approach. The KBS poll shows just 53 percent supporting a nuclear option (close to the Gallup Korea result of 54 percent), but the JoongAng Ilbo poll finds support at 68 percent, more in line with other polls conducted in 2013. These results argue for caution when assessing public opinion on the nuclear question.

Preliminary Takeaways

Taking into account the limitations of the data and potential competing explanations for South Korea’s evolving reaction to North Korea’s nuclear testing (discussed below), it is clear that the nuclear debate reflects a complex and evolving picture that bears watching over time. However, the data provide little clarity about whether there is a relationship between the public debate and the possibility that the South Korean government may be contemplating nuclear options more seriously in secret.

The public debate is still on the fringe, albeit more raucous than in 2011 and potentially populist. The data suggest that the nuclear debate is in most respects still on the margins of public discourse—just eight politicians out of more than 300 national and provincial leaders publicly support developing nuclear weapons, joined by a handful of editorial writers, pundits, and nongovernmental experts. Democratic societies always contain fringe views that occasionally emerge in the public discourse, as seems to be the case in South Korea. That said, with five new politicians supporting nuclear options in 2016, there may be a sense that the political risks of stating such support have diminished.

In this context, populism cannot be ruled out as an explanation for pro-nuclear statements by conservative politicians. The very high salience of the North Korea threat among likely Saenuri Party voters may help explain why some politicians, as well as at least one prospective candidate who ran for (but did not win) a spot on the Saenuri ticket for the April 2016 election, stated support for a nuclear option. For some politicians, this may be a matter of creating sound bites they believe play well with voters and giving the impression of responding strongly to a growing North Korean threat.

However, the politics of this issue are not clear-cut. The ruling Saenuri Party is split on the subject. Then party chairman, Kim Moo-sung—who resigned following the party’s resounding defeat in the April 2016 election—stated in February that a pro-nuclear stance is not a representative opinion of Saenuri and has never been discussed among the party leadership. Another Saenuri representative, Yoon Sang-hyun, in January similarly questioned the wisdom of supporting a nuclear option: “‘Let’s obtain nuclear weapons’ is easy to say. But it is an irresponsible statement. . . . [Nuclear armament] would break the NPT . . . and we would be isolating ourselves.” Meanwhile, representatives of left-leaning opposition parties, which historically have been less favorable to the U.S. alliance, universally have criticized nuclear option supporters.

Greater media coverage mostly reflects a changed political landscape. Given the relatively consistent level of political engagement, the doubling of media coverage and appearance of more strident editorials in 2016 is interesting. This may be best explained by the political context. In February 2013, the Park Geun-hye administration was just entering office, having handily won the presidential election. In 2016, however, the debate occurred in the lead-up to the quadrennial general election in April that would determine control of the National Assembly. Focusing the political discourse on threats from North Korea—a phenomenon known as buk-poong, or northern wind—would tend to favor the ruling conservative party (and thus encourage greater coverage from conservative media). Arguments in support of a nuclear option take on a decidedly populist tinge in this context, which might help explain the increased coverage. The April election results, in which Saenuri lost its majority in the National Assembly, indicate that this strategy did not sway voters who tended to be more concerned about economic issues than threats from North Korea.

There are other possible explanations for the increased media attention. For instance, pro-nuclear politicians may have simply done a better job in 2016 than previously in securing media coverage of their views. In this sense, the level of political support and media coverage may not be entirely separate indicators of public discourse.

Another possibility is that both the South Korean government and conservative media outlets (which are more likely to feature pro-nuclear views) actively downplayed coverage in 2013 so as not to disrupt U.S.-ROK negotiations on a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement. With the U.S.-ROK agreement concluded in mid-2015, there were fewer incentives for the government or conservative media to discourage or dampen such discourse when it reoccurred in 2016. This may suggest that the level of nuclear debate coverage in 2016 is more the norm, and that 2013 coverage was artificially low.

Finally, the alliance concerns at the heart of the South Korean debate may reflect a broader nervousness among U.S. allies about the durability of American security commitments. Observing the lack of a forceful U.S. response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, for example, some allies may question the seriousness of U.S. dedication to their protection. This concern seems to be growing stronger as Donald Trump has moved closer to becoming the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016.

It is also worth noting that mainstream South Korean media coverage has rarely addressed the costs associated with any of the nuclear options—economic, energy, security, and reputational—aside from cursory discussion in opposition articles. The magnitude and seriousness of these costs can be debated, and are certainly wide-ranging given the variation in the conditions and requirements for each of the nuclear options considered. Some South Koreans may discount any potential costs, believing that the United States will not punish their country for acquiring nuclear weapons to the extent they perceive that Washington protects its friends (for example, India) and only pressures its enemies (for example, Iran, Iraq). Growing media engagement thus may distort the level of real support for the nuclear option and, in the absence of a discussion of cost, can drive public opinion toward extremes.

Public opinion is malleable, but support for nuclear options has declined. One of the most surprising results of the polling data is the prominent drop in the public’s perception of the security threat from North Korea, despite qualitative and quantitative advances in North Korea’s nuclear capability between 2013 and 2016. The declining view that North Korea’s nuclear testing is threatening clearly helps explain why public support for developing nuclear weapons has also weakened. It is possible that the South Korean public has become more inured to the vitriolic language and regular provocations from the North, including nuclear and missile testing. 

But the variance in polling results highlights the need for caution in drawing conclusions about public sentiment. The 2016 KBS and JoongAng Ilbo polls diverge on the question of nuclear possession by 15 percent, well beyond the 3 percent margin of error for each poll. Looking more closely at the surveys, it is clear that the order and context of questions surrounding nuclear possession may contribute to the variance. Specifically, the KBS poll, which shows lower public support for nuclear weapons, situates nuclear possession in the context of how South Korea should respond to North Korea’s nuclear test, while the JoongAng Ilbo poll focuses more on the North Korean threat and domestic politics in South Korea. The difference between these two polls suggests that South Korean public opinion is fluid and probably malleable depending on survey design. In this regard, poll results often provide for eye-catching headlines that likely do not accurately reflect the public mood.

Looking Ahead

It is notable that none of the politicians or expert commentators supporting nuclear options has provided a serious, practical theory of how it would improve ROK security or, more specifically, strengthen deterrence against North Korea. Instead the voices in the debate are characterized by a profound frustration that efforts to stop the North Korean nuclear weapons program have failed, rather than a sincere belief that nuclear weapons are the answer to South Korea’s security dilemma. But it would be a mistake to dismiss these sentiments, particularly to the extent they could begin to bound the space available to the United States to reassure South Korea about the durability of the defense alliance.

Historically, both in South Korea and elsewhere, support for nuclear options among countries allied to the United States has correlated with concerns about the strength of that country’s alliance with the United States. Most experts and officials in Seoul and Washington today argue that the security alliance is stronger than ever and reflects unusually deep efforts to strengthen deterrence and reassure South Koreans about the U.S. commitment. Yet, concerns about alliance decoupling are clearly driving the contemporary debate. Whether this anomaly reflects a disconnect between the South Korean public and experts on the alliance, messaging problems from the United States, or other phenomena is not entirely clear. Perhaps additional data over time can help clarify the contemporary relationship between alliance health and pro-nuclear sentiment.

Though the data presented above describe something of the public discourse, they give little indication of the relationship between this discourse and what debate, if any, South Korean officials may be having behind closed doors. It is notable that senior South Korean government officials are among those voices that have not featured prominently in the debate. Their relative silence may be cause for greater concern than what is said publicly. To be fair, some senior officials including the foreign affairs and defense ministers, as well as President Park herself, have made statements affirming South Korea’s nonproliferation commitments. But these interventions have a slight air of fence-sitting about them, as if to leave space for the debate to proceed. President Park, for instance, has said that nuclear weapons are unnecessary for South Korea’s security, but has also expressed understanding of support for nuclear weapons based on how vexed people feel about the North Korean nuclear test. The South Koreans feeling vexed could include officials, even President Park herself, upset by perceived weak responses from Washington and Beijing to the North Korean nuclear test. If the Park administration is allowing the debate to simmer for signaling purposes, it risks reputational damage to South Korea as a leading state on nonproliferation matters.

Given the less-than-vociferous official South Korean presence in the nuclear debate, it is worth considering the argument that these statements do constitute a form of signaling.7 Some commentators have suggested as much, indicating a desire to warn Beijing and Washington to do more to prevent further North Korean nuclear advances. Another possibility is that these statements are more of a trial balloon, to see how the United States (and/or China) reacts. At this stage, these signals are not particularly costly, given that none of the nuclear options discussed is readily achievable.

As the North Korean nuclear threat continues to grow, it is reasonable to expect the South Korean debate on nuclear options to become sharper in tone. This will make interpreting any South Korean signals more challenging and pose some difficult questions for U.S. policymakers. There is something of a catch-22 in Washington’s calculus. On the one hand, American officials must take great care to provide reassurance about the vitality and perpetuity of the defense alliance in ways that register with the South Korean public, not just the political elite. On the other hand, they must also convey the seriousness of the potential consequences if Seoul were to explore nuclear options in a concrete way.

Depending on whether the signaling from Seoul is a trial balloon, a plea for reassurance, a warning to do more to rein in North Korea, or some combination thereof, how the United States responds may actually feed a phenomenon it seeks to avoid. This in turn raises important questions about the tone, substance, and venue for U.S. responses. For Washington, this will be a difficult balance to strike.

Toby Dalton is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Byun Sunggee and Lee Sang Tae are Asan fellows at Carnegie.

Notes

1 This term originated in the context of anxiety among North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies about U.S. security commitments in the early 1970s. See Michael Brenner, “Decoupling, Disengagement and European Defense,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 28, no. 2 (1972). It is discussed in academic literature on alliances in terms of abandonment. See Glenn Snyder, “The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics,” World Politics 36, no. 4 (1984).

2 Fears of decoupling and abandonment are deeply rooted in the history of U.S. alliances in both East Asia and Europe, and perhaps a feature of security alliances in general. Snyder, “The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics.”

3 Seung-Young Kim, “Security, Nationalism and the Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons and Missiles: The South Korean Case, 1970-82,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 12, no. 4 (2001).

4 The eleven news outlets in the sample include: Chosun Ilbo, DongA Ilbo, Hankyoreh, JoongAng Ilbo, Kukmin Ilbo, Kyunghyang Shinmun, Munhwa Ilbo, Segye Ilbo, Seoul Shinmun, Seoul Kyungje, and Yonhap News Agency. The sample includes media coverage from February 12–April 12, 2013, and January 6–March 6, 2016.

5 There were 45 pro-nuclear articles and 40 anti-nuclear articles in the sample.

6 There are three major television networks in South Korea: KBS, MBC, and SBS. The total number of stories on these networks increased from 77 to 110.

7 There are many historical examples of this. See for instance Jeffrey Knopf, ed., Security Assurances and Nuclear Nonproliferation (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).