Nuclear Talks and Geopolitical Risk in East Asia
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Nuclear Talks and Geopolitical Risk in East Asia


APLN member Rajaram Panda wrote about the geopolitical risk in East Asia, arguing that the solution lies in pursuing dialogue-oriented diplomacy with security-related approaches from all stakeholders. Read the original article here.

Not everything is going well in the security arena in the Northeast Asian region as the security scenario is getting fragile at a faster rate. As North Korea continue to advance towards more sophisticated weapons system, Beijing ups the ante on the Taiwan strait, Japan acquires more weapons system the Tomahawks and South Korea does the same, the geopolitical risks continues to become graver.

Two possible scenarios are most dreaded: one if Beijing chooses to become adventurous in an attempt to annex Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, and might be tempted to use small nuclear bomb in a Taiwan war, the security situation can suddenly become messy as the US would inevitably be drawn into the conflict and would expect its allies – Japan and South Korea – to join in Taiwan’s defence. It will be too difficult for Japan to remain neutral in such a situation. The other scenario of growing geopolitical risk is as China-North Korea nexus gathers more teeth with the former supporting the latter’s nuclear weapons programme, the debate in Japan and South Korea shall gather steam for developing their own nuclear arsenals. Both are terrible scenarios one would wish should never happen.

Let me elaborate further on the second scenario. Most Korean people are aware that their country is protected by the US nuclear umbrella but there are anxieties as well if the US extended nuclear deterrence would be enough to ensure the country’s security. This anxiety about the effectiveness of the US nuclear umbrella has increased calls for the nation to go nuclear. Does it mean the US has lost the trust of the Korean people? There are indicators that suggest to this hypothesis.

It is true that North Korean threats and uncertainty about the US are driving debate as South Korea seeks greater control over its defence. But public opinions about Korea going nuclear have varied over different periods. Whatever may be the percentage of people either endorsing or rejecting such an idea, any endorsement to the idea shall have heavy costs.

Talk in South Korea about developing nuclear weapons is nothing new, and Seoul at one time even pursued a nuclear programme until the US nipped it in the bud. However over the past couple of years, an assertive China and North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons development reinvigorated discussions in Seoul about whether the country should acquire the bomb. The reality is that if Seoul chooses such a course, it could end up compromising its own security.[1]

In mid 2022, an opinion poll showed more than 70 per cent South Koreans wanted their country to acquire nuclear weapon. A new survey released by the government-funded Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU) in May 2023 found that public support for a domestic nuclear arsenal declined significantly from a high of 71.3 per cent in 2021 to 69 per cent in 2022 and 60.2 per cent in June 2023.[2] The support base plunged despite North Korea’s increased pace of missile launches and weapons tests, and the prospect that the war in Ukraine could impact public opinion. For record, the reclusive country conducted more than 100 launches since early 2022.[3]

It transpired from the KINU survey that domestic politicisation of the issue shaped public opinion more than perceptions on North Korean threats or US credibility, leading to the decline in support for acquiring nuclear weapons. According to Sang-sin Lee, the lead author of the NINU report, despite North Korean missile provocations and considerable deterioration of relations with China, domestic support for nuclear armament relatively decreased.[4]

Studies in the past had revealed that Korean people felt if their country does not possess nuclear weapon, Korea might face the fate like Ukraine. Yet KINU survey revealed that nuclear armament was not an option as the percentage of people supporting such a view decreased. This suggests that the hypothesis in favour may not be correct. Moreover, the South Korean people keep hearing so much about North Korea that they have ceased to take it seriously. The KINU survey revealed that only 34 per cent of respondents said they are interested in the topic of North Korean threat while less than one in five said developments in Pyongyang directly affect their lives.

Also talks on the idea of US nuclear redeployment in South Korea scored a low. The support base declined from 61.8 per cent to 53.6 per cent over the same 2021-23 period. Of the six scenarios that the survey presented such as if South Korea pursues a nuclear weapons programme, such as sanctions, destruction of US-South Korea alliance or deteriorated security, only 36 per cent of respondents supported nuclear weapons when faced with these consequences. The KINU survey results starkly contrasted with other surveys that showed over 70 per cent approved nuclear armament.

South Korea overwhelms North Korea in terms of conventional weaponry. Thus, North Korea has been prodded to turn to the development of nuclear weapons. Amid widening economic disparities between the two countries, North Korea has no other choice but to rely on ballistic missiles.

The reason behind the decline in support for nuclear armament was because Koreans trust the traditional security system of the US-South Korea alliance and US troops. The need for the survey was felt necessary as public discussion on the merits of nuclear armament had picked up in South Korea since 2022 when President Yoon Suk-yeol broached the possibility, mentioning concerns about whether the US would risk a nuclear attack on its twin cities to defend Seoul in a conflict.

Though South Korea’s relations with Japan remained frosty for quite some time, there is a thaw recently as both Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced commitment to rebuild ties. That short phase of rapprochement runs risk of being undone as a South Korea court reopened the compensation issue to the ‘comfort women’ in November 2023, ordering Japan payment of $154,000/- each to the complainants. The old seems would never be healed.[5]

Between South Korea and Japan, South Korean people feel North Korea’s nuclear threat more strongly that Japanese people. This is because the two Koreas are contiguous and the North is developing technologies that can get past missile-defence shields. There is a sense of crisis in South Korea that the country cannot defend itself in the current situation. Therefore, discussions on nuclear armament are muted in Japan than in South Korea. Now, the South Korean people shall find in a happy space since the public opinion as demonstrated by the KINU survey results showed decline in support for their country to pursue the nuclear path.

If one assesses the Washington Declaration during President Yoon’s visit to Washington and summit meeting with US President Joe Biden, it transpires that fears by Seoul were dissipated to a large extent as Biden promised Seoul a greater say in US nuclear strategy. This could have contributed to the decline in support for nuclear armament as revealed by the KINU survey report.

This could be one factor but it is difficult to conclusively say that the Washington Declaration did impact the nuclear attitudes of the Korean people. The truism is that domestic political factors are more significant than foreign relations that drive changes in public opinions. Before 2022, there was no serious public discussion on nuclear armament. That led to “uninformed support’ for such a program. Now the debate shifted to the mainstream and the South Koreans were in a better position to weigh the costs and benefits. This realisation also politicised the issue. As a result, conservative support for nuclear armament has made it less appealing among moderate-left citizens and Democratic Party supporters.

The KINU survey showed strong confidence in the US-South Korea alliance. Seven out of ten respondents believed the US will continue to defend the South from the North, matching similar support figures from past surveys. Pyongyang is aware that besides the US nuclear umbrella that Seoul enjoys, South Korea overwhelms North Korea in terms of conventional weaponry. This realisation has prodded North Korea to turn to the development of nuclear weapons. Amid widening economic disparities between the two countries, North Korea has no other choice but to rely on ballistic missiles.

This does not mean to suggest that talks of nuclear armament in South Korea shall go away so soon. Public opinion could swing swiftly in favour if Pyongyang goes ballistic and attacks Seoul. Such possible scenario leads to doubt if the nuclear umbrella, though guaranteed by the US, would actually work in an emergency. The growing assertiveness of some liberal thinkers could be other factor. Such people want to strengthen their presence in the world by seeking conciliation between the two Koreas while fending off involvement from foreign countries. They think that if South Korea goes nuclear, it can conduct diplomacy on its own without speculating on Washington’s potential stance.

For now even though Seoul’s stance may be muted and doubt about reliance on the US nuclear umbrella remain in some quarter, South Korea would not be in a position to arm itself with nuclear weapons. What it could be doing in the interim is to focus on advancing its technological development as close as possible to being able to deliver a nuclear capability. For example, it has successfully conducted a submarine-launched ballistic missile test. The redeeming fact is that under the Washington Declaration, South Korea and the US established the US-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group, in which South Korea’s participation in US nuclear management shall help increase trust in the nuclear umbrella. Probably Biden was driven to take this initiative to stem calls in South Korea to revisit its nuclear option.

The worst case scenario is if China decides to attack Taiwan, there is a probability that it could use tactical nuclear weapons on Taiwan’s defence systems and military facilities. If Beijing pre-empts the US nuclear retaliation in response to defending Taiwan, Beijing might not hesitate to become the second-user of nuclear weapons after the US in the pursuit of hegemony.

The way out therefore is to continue with dialogue-oriented diplomacy having security-related approaches by all the stakeholders. If North Korea is not willing to suspend its nuclear development programmes and China continues to play its Taiwan card, Japan and South Korea shall have compelling reasons to increase defence spending to build their own defence capability while remaining committed to the alliance relationship with the US. Such a course shall contribute to regional stability.


[1]Chad O’Carroll, “Talk is growing about Seoul going nuclear. Bur experts warn of costs involved”. 26 July 2022,
[2]For details, see Sang Sin Lee, Tae-eun Min, Kwang-il Yoon, and Bon-sang Koo, “KINU Unification Survey 2023: Executive Summary”, Opinions were sought from 1001 South Koreans aged 18 and over between 15 April and 10 May 2023.
[3]Jesse Johnson, “South Korean support for building own nukes plummets, survey finds”, The Japan Times, 5 June 2023,
[4]Jeongmin Kim, “South Korean support for nukes drops as public debate ramps up: Survey”, 6 June 2023,
[5]Rajaram Panda, “Reopening wounds”, The Statesman, 28 November 2023,


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