Policy Brief No. 80
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In this APLN Policy Brief, Joel Petersson Ivre, policy fellow at APLN, argues that the incoming South Korean government must deal with both obvious and more subtle political pressures that could result in the country establishing a latent capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. This policy brief argues that the new South Korean government should take transparency measures to decrease this risk.
The domestic debate about South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons continues. Recent surveys show that a majority of the population wants them, not just to balance North Korea’s nuclear threats, but also to counter perceived encroachment from China. President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has said that he would secure South Korea from surrounding nuclear powers by asking the United States to once again station nuclear weapons on (or around) the Korean Peninsula. Failing that, some more fringe – but increasingly vocal – members of his party have called for South Korea to build its own nuclear weapons, at whatever the cost
At the same time, the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights South Korea’s energy insecurity and dependence on foreign fuel. South Korean officials have argued that reprocessing would allow the country to recycle fuel for its own reactors, become an important part of the nation’s energy security, and reduce the radioactivity of spent fuel, which makes storage easier. As the new administration has vowed to reverse the former administration’s nuclear phase out policy, and as current nuclear fuel storage fills up, these arguments will likely grow stronger.
South Korea has long sought the ability to reprocess spent fuel from nuclear reactors. Reprocessing – the chemical process that separates uranium and plutonium isotopes from spent reactor fuel – is a contentious issue for the global non-proliferation regime as it is a crucial step towards obtaining plutonium for a nuclear bomb. While there are still many hurdles and much time until such a capacity can be realised, the convergence of technological and domestic political trends in South Korea – coupled with the perceived threat from not only North Korea but also China – poses a new challenge for the non-proliferation regime on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. A nuclear breakout decision by South Korea would have disastrous consequences for the country, the region, and for the global non-proliferation regime.
About the Author
Joel Petersson Ivre is a policy fellow at APLN. He received his Master’s degree from Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies for East Asian Studies and International Security and Foreign Policy, and his Bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Culture from Stockholm University. He has held internships at East Asia Institute in Seoul and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. His research interest is East Asian security issues, with a particular focus on Chinese politics and foreign policy, and the strategic position of South Korea in East Asia. Before joining the APLN he worked as an independent researcher, writer, and freelance translator in Seoul.
Image: A panoramic view of a nuclear power plant in Korea, bewrite, iStock