As South Korea and the U.S. began conducting their annual military drills today, sending North Korea into a state of frenzy, the South Korean people have begun talking about the need to develop their own nuclear arsenal to contend with the threat from their increasingly bellicose neighbor to the north—an indication that the South Koreans no longer have full confidence in the U.S. to protect them.
With 28,500 troops based in South Korea, a remnant of a treaty from the Korean War, the U.S. is supposed to be a buffer shielding South Korea from North Korean aggression. But two recent opinion polls show that two-thirds of South Koreans don’t think the U.S. presence is protection enough, as they join a small but growing number of politicians and pundits calling for a South Korean nuclear arsenal. Since North Korea last month conducted its third underground nuclear test since 2006, opinion in the South has gotten more aggressive.
“The third nuclear test was for South Korea what the Cuban missile crisis was for the U.S.,” said Han Yong-sup, a professor of security policy at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul. “It has made the North Korean threat seem very close and very real.”
In addition to the nuclear test and the successful launching of a long-range rocket, North Korea has been issuing extremely apocalyptic threats about “pre-emptive nuclear strikes” and “final destruction” on South Korea—language that shocked many South Koreans, according to the New York Times, because they always assumed the United States was the main target of the North’s nuclear program.
In the meantime, North Korea’s longtime ally, China, has been moving to distance itself from the North, troubled by the signs of instability and irrationality. It came as a surprise to many when China joined the U.S. in passing tough new sanctions against North Korea last week in the U.N Security Council after the underground nuclear test. But China declares it will not abandon North Korea altogether.
However, there was a surprising admission by a senior Communist Party official in China, Qiu Yuanping, that party leaders had begun talking talked about whether to “keep or dump” North Korea and whether China should “fight or talk” with the North. And prominent Communist Party analyst, Deng Yuwen, a deputy editor of Study Times, the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party, wrote in the Financial Times last month that China should “give up” on North Korea.
Deng asked what would happen if the United States launched a pre-emptive attack on North Korea: “Would China not be obliged to help North Korea based on our ‘alliance.’ Would that not be drawing fire upon ourselves?” he pondered.
Though the military drills involving 10,000 South Koreans and 3,000 American troops are done every year, they are regularly viewed by the North Koreans as preparation for invasion. But this year, the North’s reaction to the drills has been even more extreme than usual, prompting the North to void the armistice that has existed since the end of the Korean War and to refuse to answer two calls on a hotline between the sides, following through on an earlier vow to cut the communication channel because of the drills.
Under South Korea’s newly inaugurated President Park Geun-hye, the nation has been intent on sending a message of strength in response to the latest threats, warning on Friday that the North’s government would “evaporate from the face of the Earth” if it ever used a nuclear weapon.
The White House also said the U.S. is fully capable of defending itself against a North Korean ballistic attack.
But while there is disagreement about how close North Korea is to developing a viable nuclear weapon that could fit on a long-range missile, North Korea does have a variety of missiles and other weapons capable of striking South Korea.
Memories are still fresh of the incidents in 2010 when North Korea shelled a South Korean island and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing a total of 50 South Koreans.