Nuclear Fears on the Peninsula

Written by Cameron Chambers

February 11, 2023

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen in the past month, with both North and South Korea engaging in nuclear saber-rattling. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, speaking to his defense and foreign ministries, put on the table the policy option of creating a nuclear weapons program. This comes as a Chicago Council poll from 2022 shows that 71% of South Korean citizens favor the state developing nuclear weapons while 56% support the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons. In recent months, Kim Jong Un announced the expansion of the state’s nuclear arsenal, which includes mass-producing short-range nuclear missiles. North Korea views the new government under President Yoon Suk Yeol as an “undoubted enemy” and states that the new conservative government in South Korea is the reason for the increase in nuclear weapons production. Furthermore, North Korea unveiled 10 Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missiles on Wednesday for a military parade while launching the most ICBM tests in 2022 than any year prior. These developments have put the peninsula in a precarious state.

South Korea is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), committed to not developing nuclear weapons. However, the comments made by President Yoon Suk Yeol have put into question whether or not South Korea will remain party to the NPT. Furthermore, the U.S. and South Korea have a nuclear cooperation agreement which seeks to maintain peaceful civilian use of nuclear power and strengthen the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, which includes IAEA safeguards.

The increased tensions on the peninsula and the comments made by President Yoon Suk Yeol have raised the question of how strong the commitment of the U.S. to defend South Korea is. Scott A. Snyder, a contributor to the Council on Foreign Relations, states that North Korea seeks to create tensions between the U.S. and South Korea and views South Korean nuclear weapons as a wedge issue. A further commitment from the U.S. to defend South Korea may be needed to dissuade fears and prevent proliferation.

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