Posted : 2016-01-18 17:16
Updated : 2016-01-18 19:57

NK test stirs call for nuclear armament

Conservative civic activists burn photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to protest Pyongyang's purported test of its first hydrogen bomb during a rally in Seoul, Jan. 7. / Yonhap

By Yi Whan-woo

South Korea faces a growing call to develop and obtain nuclear weapons for self-defense in the wake of North Korea's latest nuclear test on Jan. 6.

Some 54 percent supported recent demands for the country's nuclear armament in a survey conducted by Gallup Korea on 1,005 adults from Jan. 12 to 14.

Thirty-eight percent was against such a demand. The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

The result came after a group of ruling Saenuri Party lawmakers urged the government from Jan. 7 to consider becoming a nuclear state despite South Korea's decades-long commitment to forgo its nuclear ambitions.

The legislators said Seoul should shift away from its pledge to not seek a nuclear program in line with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). South Korea ratified the NPT in 1975 and has agreed not to develop nuclear weapons since then.

"It's time for us to peacefully arm ourselves with nuclear weapons from the perspective of self-defense to fight against North Korea's terror and destruction," said Saenuri Party floor leader Rep. Won Yoo-chul.

Rep. Kim Eul-dong, one of the party's Supreme Council members, claimed nuclear weapons are crucial for "the country's own sake."

"We can't ensure our future if we rely on the military power of our allies," Kim said. She cited that South Korea, a U.S. ally, is protected by Washington's nuclear umbrella.

From left, Reps. Kim Eul-dong, Won Woo-chul and Kim Jung-hoon of the ruling Saenuri Party call for South Korea's nuclear armament during the party's Supreme Council meeting in Yeouido, Seoul, Jan. 7. / Yonhap

"I believe scrapping North Korea's nuclear program and denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula can be made possible only if we own tactical nuclear weapons," Kim said.

Kim Jung-hoon, the party's chief policymaker, said "Seoul needs to go forward with the proactive strategy to react to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons with its own."

Meanwhile, President Park Geun-hye voiced opposition to nuclear armament during a New Year's address on Jan. 13, saying "It would break our commitment to the international community."

In a 2015 report, Charles Ferguson, the president of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), claimed that Seoul already has enough plutonium — which has been amassed only for commercial purposes — to make nuclear bombs.

He also warned Seoul may violate the NPT and consider joining the nuclear arms race if it determines that Pyongyang's nuclear threat reaches a level that Washington and Beijing cannot control.

"If the U.S. were perceived to not be able to reliably and credibly counter the threats posed by China and North Korea, prudent military planners in Japan and South Korea would want to take steps to have their own nuclear capabilities," Ferguson said.

North Korea purportedly tested its first hydrogen bomb on Jan. 6 at the Punggye-ri nuclear site in North Hamgyong Province.

If true, it would be Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test following ones in 2006, 2009 and 2013. It also shows that the Kim Jong-un regime may have made huge advances in its nuclear technology while the U.S. and China have failed to press North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Politicians want attention

Under such circumstance, South Korean analysts turned down speculation that the country may go for nuclear armament in the future.

They said the Saenuri Party's demand is aimed at wooing conservative voters ahead of parliamentary elections on April 13, while urging both the U.S. and China to ensure peace on the peninsula.

"It's evident that South Korea will pay too much of a price for owning nuclear weapons," said Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong University. He pointed out that North Korea faced a string of economic sanctions for withdrawing from the NPT, refusing to return to the negotiating table for the dormant six-party talks, and carrying out nuclear tests.

"Our nation will be internationally-isolated if we follow North Korea's path. And the damage will be huger for us considering the size of our economy is larger than that of Pyongyang."

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University, agreed.

"The ruling party lawmakers are deliberately bringing up issues of nuclear armament to draw a nostalgic reaction from senior citizens as well as their support for the April general election," he said.

South Korea pursued nuclear armament until the mid-1970s under military dictator Park Chung-hee, the late father of current President Park Geun-hye.

The country signed the NPT after the U.S. threatened to withdraw its security guarantees if Seoul did not give up its plan for nuclear weapons.

Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University, said "Politicians are making reckless remarks. They should note that such careless comments can spark international concerns."

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said it remains to be seen whether the U.S. and China will take North Korea's nuclear program seriously.

"The politicians' demand is aimed at urging Washington to step up its efforts to deter Pyongyang's military aggression while asking Beijing to play a constructive role to punish the Kim regime for its latest nuclear test," he said.

"But I'm not certain whether the lawmakers will succeed in drawing attention from Washington and Beijing because the two world powers know it will be nonsense for Seoul to give up its economy in return for nuclear armament."

Park Won-gon said, "I believe the politicians especially want China to exercise leverage on North Korea."

Due to concerns over a possible collapse of the Kim regime and th influx of millions of refugees, China is largely seen as being reluctant to exert influence on North Korea and punish it in line with international demands.

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