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South Korea Considers Nuclear Weapons as Geopolitical Tensions Escalate

By Milo Mandelli-Valla

New York City, New York

President Yoon Suk Yeol of the Republic of Korea. (Yang Dong Wook)

With Russia’s invasion into its neighboring nation of Ukraine, the threat of China’s military drills around Taiwan, and the Middle East’s instability, the tension in Korea is just one element of the current geopolitical uncertainty. Korea’s importance has not waned since the Korean War; despite a constantly adapting geopolitical landscape, Korea still remains polarized around its ideological lines and holds a tactical position of importance to both the United States and China—the main superpowers of the global system.

In a sudden shift in Yoon Suk Yeol’s behavior, the South Korean President recently stated that his nation will be looking into building its own nuclear weapons if North Korea continues to escalate tensions. President Yoon’s comments marked the first time that a South Korean president officially mentioned arming the country with nuclear weapons since the United States withdrew all of its nuclear weapons from the South in 1991. However, Yoon—who campaigned with a no-nonsense approach toward the North—said that steps will not immediately be taken towards arming the country with nuclear weapons as he would prefer the de-escalation of tensions.

Although South Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as a resolution with North Korea during the Cold War to prevent future nuclear development, North Korea has repeatedly dismissed these contracts. Thus, warheads still remain a viable possibility; a statement by Yoon reaffirmed the country's capability to produce nuclear weapons if deemed necessary: “we can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities,” he said in an address. North Korea has proven that these are not empty threats by launching 70 weapons in 2022 alone, with many of these missiles targeted at the South. The North also sent five drones into South airspace for several hours in late December, where the South Korean government retaliated with a convoy of twenty helicopters and planes to remove them from the South’s airspace.

The two superpowers of the world may need to intervene in this conflict, as has been the historically common approach. The United States plans to increase missile defense systems in the Pacific region, specifically in the South Korean region, as well as reaffirm its unwavering support of South Korea by potentially redeploying warheads to the South. Meanwhile, China could try to push North Korea to de-escalate, as they did back in 2017. Even if China is unbothered by the growing tensions, they likely will not want an arms race developing on their own border, which would pose an immense geopolitical threat in the region. China has the capability to assist in de–escalation of the situation because they have total monopoly on the North’s economic function, and therefore have leverage over the North in negotiations and broader relations.

Whatever the consequences may be of these tensions in Korea, some form of action must be taken, as things could easily spiral out of control. Whether this calls for the US or China to intervene, resolution is needed quickly.


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