Does South Korea have nuclear weapons? The truth in 2023

The Korean Peninsula has been a flashpoint for tensions and conflict for decades.

North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and missile technology has raised concerns about a potential nuclear war.

As a result, many have wondered whether South Korea, often viewed as a target by its northern neighbor, has acquired nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

The issue has gained further relevance with recent comments from the South Korean president hinting at the prospect of developing a nuclear arsenal. 

Many argue that it’s unlikely for South Korea to possess nuclear weapons as the country is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has a close alliance with the United States.

This all raises an important question: does South Korea have nuclear weapons?

In this post, we’ll examine the evidence and answer the question once and for all. We’ll also explain the rise in support for nuclear weapons in the country and its implications.

Does South Korea have nuclear weapons?

Due to its proximity to North Korea, technological advancements, and geopolitical situation, many would assume that South Korea has nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, it doesn’t. The country is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obliges its members to refrain from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

The NPT was established in 1968 and took effect in 1970 due to global safety concerns. Particularly, it acknowledged the precarious nature of the Cold War nuclear deterrence between the United States and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union).

Furthermore, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of 1945 demonstrated that nuclear weapons are immensely destructive and devastating.

Does South Korea have nuclear weapons

Consequently, the treaty was created, which South Korea ratified in 1975 and has adhered to its principles ever since. The country is also a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which oversees the global use of nuclear energy and materials.

While there have been calls for the country to develop a nuclear arsenal, it remains committed to its non-proliferation obligations under the NPT.

Instead, the government has focused on building strong conventional military capabilities and conducting diplomatic initiatives in the region. Moreover, South Korea enjoys a robust security assurance under the US nuclear umbrella.

Does South Korea have nuclear weapons
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol

Why the rise in support for nuclear weapons in South Korea?

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s recent remarks on nuclear armament reignited a countrywide debate on the feasibility and necessity of such a move.

While this is not the first time the issue has been raised, there is growing support from all factions for nuclear weapons.

Why is this the case? Here’s a look:

North Korean threat

North Korean aggression has escalated in recent years, creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.

In 2022, the Kim Jong-un regime launched more than 90 missiles, the highest number since the end of the Korean War.

Its nuclear arsenal seems to be expanding, with the development of missiles capable of reaching intercontinental ranges.

Furthermore, international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang have failed to deter its leadership from pursuing nuclear ambitions.

On the other hand, South Korea continues to uphold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, limiting its defensive mechanism. This has put it in an unfavorable position, resulting in the tragic loss of its military personnel, not to mention endangering its civilian population.

All these have fueled calls for more drastic measures to defend against possible attacks.

According to a recent survey, around 71% of South Koreans support the development of nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s growing threat.

That’s a significant shift in public opinion, as South Korea has long been a vocal proponent of nuclear non-proliferation.

The president’s political party has also expressed its support for the idea creating an even stronger argument for acquiring such weapons.

While the government has come out to quickly deny any intention of going down that path, it remains to be seen how this issue will unfold.

Does South Korea have nuclear weapons
North Korea President Kim Jong-Un

The fragility of the U.S-South Korean alliance

Following the Korean War, the US and South Korea signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953, laying the groundwork for their alliance.

The treaty committed the United States to come to South Korea’s aid in case of an attack. In return, South Korea would host US forces and support their operations.

Since then, the partnership has been the cornerstone of security and stability in the Korean Peninsula.

The US maintains around 28,500 troops in the country, providing military assistance and intelligence.

As a result, this has deterred any form of aggression from neighboring countries, especially North Korea and China.

However, recent political developments have cast doubt on its future.

While in office, President Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy to withdraw US troops raised questions over Washington’s commitment to its allies. These concerns were further compounded by his willingness to deal with Pyongyang.

Moreover, trade frictions have heightened tensions between the two countries, with the US reducing its reliance on South Korean semiconductor manufacturers. These events have led many to question the reliability of Washington as a security partner.

Today, most South Koreans, regardless of political affiliation, support the development of a homegrown nuclear capability. They believe it’ll reduce their overreliance on the US’s defensive umbrella and grant them autonomy in determining their security interests.

Russia-Ukraine war

In 1996, Ukraine joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty and agreed to relinquish its nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances from Russia.

Despite this, in February 2022, it was invaded by the same country that had promised to protect it.

Russia has since been flexing its military muscles and pushing further into Ukrainian territory.

In fact, it has used its nuclear weapons to intimidate and dissuade any efforts of external interference. As a result, many South Koreans fear North Korea could replicate Kremlin behavior and threaten their security.

Moreover, the United States government has officially announced that it’ll not deploy any troops to Ukraine.

President Joe Biden’s administration sees the move as one that could potentially escalate the conflict and result in World War III involving nuclear powers. All these serve as a lesson to South Korea on the vulnerability of nuclear disarmament treaties and the need to develop their defense capabilities.

As such, a growing consensus is that a nuclear deterrent is the only way to ensure their safety.

Does South Korea have nuclear weapons
Russian President Vladimir Putin

China’s assertive expansion for regional dominance

China has been South Korea’s largest trading partner for over two decades, with exports exceeding $162 billion in 2021.

The two nations also share strong political, social, and cultural ties due to a long mutual exchange and migration history. However, Beijing’s recent aggressive stance towards its neighbors has made many Koreans wary of its ambitions.

In 2021, China asserted its authority over portions of the East China Sea, despite competing claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Brunei.

The same year, it conducted naval and air exercises around Taiwan, demanding control over the island.

Furthermore, President Xi Jinping’s administration has remained indecisive regarding North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, doing little to halt Pyongyang’s ambitions.

Notably, in 2017, China imposed extensive sanctions on South Korea following its acquisition of a US missile defense system, furthering its geopolitical agenda.

These, and other actions, have raised concerns and apprehension among the South Korean population. In response, many have called for the country to pursue nuclear capabilities to deter potential aggression from Beijing.

Is South Korea capable of building its nuclear weapons?

South Korea has the technical expertise, raw materials, and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons.

According to Suh Kune-Yull, a Seoul National University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering professor, the country can accomplish this feat within six months.

For starters, this Peninsula is a prominent producer of nuclear technology and currently operates 24 nuclear reactors with a combined capacity of 22.5 GW electric (GWe).

That’s 29 percent of the nation’s total energy production, a flex in nuclear prowess.

Additionally, South Korea has invested heavily in nuclear technology and research, providing its scientists with ample resources.

The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) leads in this field and provides access to more than 1,190 researchers, engineers, and 126 technicians.

Lastly, Seoul maintains strong relations with the United States, a global nuclear power, enabling it to leverage its advanced nuclear technology and research capabilities. And with more than $50 Billion in the military budget, public support, and political will, it’s just a matter of time.

Implications of abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

If South Korea decides to abandon the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop its nuclear weapons, it would have serious implications.

Possible sanctions

South Korea must recall that the international community punishes countries that violate non-proliferation agreements. For instance, North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test resulted in asset freezes, arms embargoes, and travel bans enforced by the UN Security Council.

Likewise, in 1998, India and Pakistan faced international sanctions after conducting nuclear tests. South Korea risks encountering comparable economic, diplomatic, and military sanctions if it exits the treaty.

Termination of Civilian Nuclear Cooperation

South Korea heavily depends on foreign nuclear fuel, expertise, and technology for its civilian nuclear program. By 2036, it aims to fulfill 34.6 percent of its national energy requirements through this path. If Seoul abandons the NPT, the US and other key suppliers may halt nuclear cooperation, leading to significant economic consequences.

Erode the Korean Peninsula Denuclearization Efforts

South Korea leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could undermine efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and create regional instability.

It could set a dangerous precedent and encourage other nations to abandon their commitments to nuclear disarmament. As a result, it could lead to an arms race and a heightened security risk.

Arms race

Like South Korea, other East Asian countries such as Taiwan and Japan constantly face nuclear threats from their neighboring countries.

If South Korea were to withdraw from the NPT, these nations might feel compelled to pursue nuclear weapons programs to protect themselves. Rather than maintaining peace, this could potentially instigate World War III.

Final thoughts

Despite the South Korean president’s suggestion of possibly developing nuclear weapons, the country remains strongly committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the situation is constantly changing, and its neighbors’ actions have the potential to influence its strategic calculus.

North Korea continues to test and expand its nuclear arsenal. Worse, the Kim Jong-un regime has repeatedly violated international agreements and demonstrated a willingness to resort to force. Moreover, China’s increasingly aggressive claims on the South China Sea and expansion of its naval capabilities add to the overall tension.

Fortunately, Seoul enjoys the security umbrella provided by the United States and, as such, does not need to pursue nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, the country remains vigilant and closely monitors the situation to ensure regional stability and security.

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s look at some frequently asked questions about nuclear weapons in South Korea.

When did South Korea give up nuclear weapons?

South Korea has never possessed nuclear weapons. In the early 1970s, it initiated a nuclear weapons program but later abandoned it and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1975. Since then, it has been a responsible member of the international community, supporting nuclear disarmament efforts.

How much nuclear power does South Korea have?

South Korea has 24 nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 22.5 gigawatts, accounting for around 30 percent of the country’s electricity. By 2036, the country intends to increase its nuclear power capacity to 31.7 gigawatts. That’s about 34.6 percent of its total energy needs.

Who owns nuclear power plants in South Korea?

The Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) owns South Korea’s nuclear power plants. However, it doesn’t operate them. Instead, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), a subsidiary of KEPCO, manages 21 of these plants. The rest are spread among private companies such as Korea South-East Power (KOEN) and Korea Midland Power (KOMIPO).

Where does South Korea get its weapons?

South Korea’s weapons are primarily sourced from the defense industry. Initially dependent on the US, the country has become more self-sufficient and autonomous, developing advanced weapons systems. It primarily manufactures battle tanks, rifles, and missile launchers. As a result, it has risen to become the world’s eighth-largest arms exporter.

Does North Korea have a better army than South Korea?

It’s difficult to make a direct army comparison between the two countries due to their varying strengths and weaknesses. North Korea’s army comprises around 1.2 million active-duty troops, while South Korea’s is approximately 550,000.

Nevertheless, South Korea’s military is better equipped and more advanced, with modern fighter jets, submarines, and advanced missile defense systems.

Asia Markets provides a unique perspective on the fastest growing region on the planet. Subscribe to our newsletter FREE here.