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Under threat, South Koreans mull nuclear weapons

By K.J. Kwon, CNN
March 19, 2013 -- Updated 0023 GMT (0823 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Under heated rhetoric from North Korea, some South Koreans call for nuclear weapons
  • South Korea does not have nuclear arms because of the 'nuclear umbrella' provided by U.S.
  • Recent poll: 66% of South Koreans support developing nuclear weapons program

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- The barrage of threats from North Korea has sparked talk from within South Korea of the need to develop its own nuclear weapons.

A recent poll shows that two-thirds of South Korean citizens surveyed support the idea, especially in the wake of North Korea's third nuclear test in February.

"We, the Korean people, have been duped by North Korea for the last 20 to 30 years and it is now time for South Koreans to face the reality and do something that we need to do," said Chung Mong-joon, a lawmaker in the governing Saenuri (New Frontier) Party and a former presidential conservative candiate. "The nuclear deterrence can be the only answer. We have to have nuclear capability."

The talk of South Korea arming with its own nuclear weapon used to be taboo in the country-- and there's no apparent official government move to do so. But the tensions between the two Korean nations have amplified over the weeks, becoming reminiscent of the Cold War.

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Earlier this month, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok responded to North Korea's threat to attack the South with a pre-emptive nuclear strike saying: "If North Korea is to attack the South with its nuclear weapons... Kim Jong Un's regime will cease to exist on the face of Earth."

After North Korea conducted its third nuclear test last month, the South unveiled a cruise missile, which it claims to be so precise that it can target "a specific window of a North Korean military commander's office."

Some commentators in South Korean media have been calling for a nuclear weapons option, claiming that the country has the technology and economy to develop them in a short period of time. And public opinion is following in line.

According to a February poll conducted by South Korea's private think tank, Asan Institute, 66% of South Koreans said they support developing a nuclear weapons program. The poll suggests that just under half of South Koreans in 2012 believed that the United States would provide South Korea with what's known as the "nuclear umbrella" in the case of a North Korean nuclear attack, indicating a 7% decrease from 2011.

Under the nuclear umbrella, the U.S. is to provide South Korea with defensive means to ensure deterrence against a nuclear threat.

In recent times, South Korea has been known for little if no reaction on North Korea's provocations and threats. Its attitude changed after the 2010 attack on its battleship That killed more than 40 sailors -- North Korea was blamed. That same year, there was also outrage after the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island. South Korea returned fire and also began responding to North Korea with its own strong words.

North Korea: Nuclear program not a bargaining chip

But not all South Koreans are rallying behind the cause of developing South Korean nuclear weapons.

If South Korea makes nuclear weapons, nonproliferation in the region would soon fall apart, Han Yong-sup, professor at the Korea National Defense University said. "Japan and Taiwan could follow the suit. Then, a domino effect of nuclear proliferation will result," he said.

To assuage anxieties in South Korea, "Washington needs to make an official statement in order to make U.S. extended deterrence more credible," Han added.

Experts say that China, also a powerful economic partner with South Korea, will never agree with the idea of nuclear armed South Korea, because "it will affect Sino-U.S. ties," said Yang Zhaohui, a professor of international relations at Peking University.

North Korean video shows imagined attack on Washington

But so far, China hasn't been pleased with Kim's nuclear ambitions, although it is North Korea's closest ally and economic supporter. China recently signed on to tougher U.N. sanctions against the north, targeting that country's nuclear program.

"China appears to be getting impatient on North Korea," Yang said. "The Chinese government does not appear to be controlling its public opinion on North Korea anymore. North Korea is not popular here."

Recently, criticism of North Korea have become rampant on Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblog.

Kim Jong Un has even earned a nickname "Jin Sanpang" which means "Fat Kim the Third," and has become a popular subject of satire among Chinese netizens.

An editorial printed in China's state-run newspaper Global Times in January warned North Korea that if it conducted a nuclear test it would not hesitate to reduce assistance to North Korea.

"China's attitude towards North Korea appears to be changing," Yan said. "But China's priority is peace and stability in the region. It wants to maintain good relationship with both South and North Korea."

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