South Korea doesn’t need nuclear arms to deter the threat from North Korea, the country’s Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in an exclusive interview with CNN – even as public opinion swings the other way amid Asia’s accelerating arms race.
Several recent public surveys “definitely showed that we should re-arm ourselves. In nuclear capability terms, (the surveys say) we should go farther,” Han told CNN anchor and business editor-at-large Richard Quest during a sit-down in Seoul.
One such poll, released last February, found that 71% of more than 1,300 respondents in the country were in favor of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons – a once-unthinkable idea that has become increasingly mainstream in the past decade, with rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula and dwindling confidence in South Korea toward US protection.
However, Han insisted the country has enough in its arsenal to stave off North Korea’s “preposterous ambitions” – and that developing nuclear capabilities was not “the right way.”
“We have built up a quite adequate level of our deterrence capabilities in close cooperation with the United States,” he said, adding that the government had “put a lot of emphasis” on strengthening its deterrence since President Yoon Suk Yeol took power last year.
“We should work together with the international community… to put a lot of continuous pressure on North Korea to denuclearize,” he said. “We would like to let North Korea know that developing and advancing nuclear capabilities will not guarantee the peace and prosperity in their country.”
Relations between North and South Korea have worsened in recent years as Pyongyang ramped up its weapons program, firing a record number of missiles last year – including one that flew over Japan, the first time North Korea had done so in five years, prompting international alarm.
And for months, the US and international observers have warned that North Korea appears to be preparing for its first underground nuclear test since 2017. The country’s dictator Kim Jong Un also intensified his rhetoric last year; he declared his intention to build the “world’s most powerful” nuclear force, warned adversaries that North Korea was fully prepared for “actual war,” vowed to “never give up” nuclear weapons and dismissed the possibility of negotiating denuclearization.
In response, the US and its allies South Korea and Japan have stepped up their own military drills and cooperation. Yoon, who has publicly taken a tough stance against North Korea, even raised the prospect of South Korea building its own nuclear arsenal, saying in January it could “deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own nukes.”
And despite Han voicing opposition to such a plan, he too emphasized South Korea’s preparedness in confronting its nuclear-armed neighbor – as well as its openness for further talks, under certain conditions.
“We are not disarming ourselves against North Korea,” he said. “But we are not closing the dialogue channel with North Korea … as long as North Korea is abstaining from their very strong nuclear ambitions.”
Han also discussed China’s role in the region, saying the superpower was “not the country it used to be,” in past decades that ushered in economic reforms and liberalization.
“China is a huge and important global player,” he said. “Including Korea, I think many countries would like to see (China) be more compliant with global rules.”
He added that though China “will contribute a lot in solving global problems,” the country often doesn’t meet the “expectations a lot of countries would like to have – for example, we hoped that China would be more aggressive and more active in reducing tensions in the Korean Peninsula.”
For years, China has been North Korea’s biggest trading partner and an economic lifeline, with Pyongyang isolated from much of the world.
But Beijing, too, is a major player in the Asia arms race.
In January, US and Japanese ministers warned of the “ongoing and accelerating expansion of (China’s) nuclear arsenal.” Just days later, Japan’s prime minister expressed concern over China’s military activities in the East China Sea, and the launch of ballistic missiles over Taiwan that landed in waters near Japan in August.
China’s military buildup, aggressive foreign policy and multiple disputed territorial claims haven’t gone unnoticed in Seoul – where attitudes toward Beijing are fast souring.
In the 2022 survey on South Korean nuclear armament, more than half of respondents said China would be the biggest threat to the country in 10 years, and many cited “threats other than North Korea” behind their support for a domestic nuclear arsenal.
Han acknowledged that Seoul was closely watching these territorial disputes.
“Peace in the Taiwan Strait is also very important for the security and peace of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. And though South Korea is “committed” to the one-China policy, he said, “at the same time, we (expect) China to be more rule-based, not behaving as a country … being condemned by international community.”