While South Korea may be the most likely candidate to emerge as a new nuclear-armed state, it would be foolhardy for both economic and security reasons, in equal measures counterproductive and unnecessary.

If a new nuclear-armed state were to emerge in Northeast Asia, it would most likely be the Republic of Korea (ROK). This observation is not meant to predict that South Korea will choose nuclear armament. Steadfast in its adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the government in Seoul firmly rejects the pro-nuclear arguments posed by a few politicians and commentators. Officials understand well the downsides that those advocates ignore: the damage that nuclearisation would cause to the nation’s economy and international status due to direct and indirect sanctions, and the huge security risks in jeopardising its alliance with the US. Going nuclear would undermine US relations at the same time as it made South Korea more vulnerable. Yet these demerits are not readily apparent to the general public, two-thirds of whom voice support for nuclear weapons in polls.1 Such polls suggest that the non-proliferation norm is still shallow in South Korea. Twice in the 1970s, the country pursued nuclear weapons – albeit under an authoritarian government. More recently, South Korean nuclear scientists transgressed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in conducting enrichment and reprocessing experiments. A nationalist desire to possess the rights to sensitive nuclear technology that Japan enjoys could eventually see South Korea moving purposefully towards a recessed weapons capability. Seoul is very unlikely to cross the nuclear-weapons threshold, however, as long as the US defence commitment remains credible.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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