President Moon Jae-in told lawmakers Wednesday that South Korea would not seek to have nuclear weapons and said that Seoul would never accept its neighbor North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.
“According to the joint agreement by the two Koreas on denuclearization, North Korea’s nuclear state cannot be accepted or tolerated. We will not develop or possess nuclear weapons either,” the president said in his second state of the nation address at the National Assembly, South Korea’s parliament.
Recent tests by North Korea have led to a renewed debate about nuclear weapons in South Korea. Although the country once sought its own nuclear weapons in the 1970s during the presidency of Park Chung-hee, leaders were persuaded by the United States to abandon such ambitions.
The United States stationed nuclear-armed weapons in South Korea during the Cold War until 1991, when President George H.W. Bush withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, though the country remains protected from North Korean nuclear weapons under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, a number of politicians suggested that the South should reconsider its own nuclear weapons program. In the weeks after that test, a group of lawmakers from South Korea’s opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party, came to Washington to ask for the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to the country.
The debate has also taken place within Moon’s own ruling party, the Democratic Party. “The redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is an alternative worth a full review,” Defense Minister Song Young-moo said in early September, before North Korea’s latest nuclear test.
Before he was elected, President Trump also suggested he was open to the possibility of countries such as South Korea and Japan acquiring their own nuclear weapons to deal with the threat of North Korea.
However, Moon has remained adamantly against nuclear weapons in South Korea and has repeatedly said he would not consider redeployment due to the possibility of raising tensions with North Korea unnecessarily. During a recent visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Seoul, both Mattis and Song dismissed the idea of redeploying nuclear weapons.
“When considering national interest, it’s much better not to deploy them,” Song said. Mattis said U.S. strategic assets already provide the necessary deterrence.
Despite Moon’s strong opposition to nuclear weapons, recent polls have shown that a majority of South Koreans favor them. A poll conducted by Gallup Korea in September found that 60 percent of South Koreans supported nuclear weapons for their country in theory, a number consistent with other polls conducted recently.
Speaking to the National Assembly on Wednesday, Moon said other options were preferable to military action with North Korea. “Sanctions and pressure are means to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and to make the right choice,” Moon said.
“There can never be a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula or military operations without the South Korean government’s prior consent,” the president added.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.