PEL Winter Workshop 2018: Will South Korea Go Nuclear?

Recent tensions between North Korea and the United States has captured worldwide attention, with growing apprehension about the risks posed by North Korea to the U.S. Homeland and the prospects of a nuclear confrontation. Yet less attention has been paid to the possibility that South Korea—an early signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—might develop nuclear weapons of its own to deter Pyongyang, despite Seoul’s decades-old security alliance with the United States, which includes coverage under U.S. extended deterrence. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has dismissed this possibility, calls for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula have grown more vocal, and South Korean public opinion appears to be shifting toward a nuclear weapons option in response to North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile capabilities.

This year’s workshop, co-sponsored by the Nonproliferation Education Policy Center (NPEC), examined the prospects and implications of a nuclear-armed South Korea. It assessed the state of the U.S.-South Korea security alliance, the history and development of South Korea’s nuclear energy industry, Seoul’s nonproliferation policies, and the changing public discourse about nuclear proliferation and restraint in East Asia. What is—or should be—the U.S. long-term strategy to strengthen and sustain the U.S.-South Korea security alliance? What are the distinct challenges to preventing South Korea from developing nuclear weapons? Under what circumstances might North Korea succeed in decoupling the U.S.-South Korea alliance? What would be the implications for the United States, its security policy in East Asia, and the broader nuclear nonproliferation regime?