South Korean president rows back alarming nuclear weapons claim

South Korea’s president Yoon Suk-yeol attends the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
South Korea’s president Yoon Suk-yeol attends the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol has said that his country remains committed to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in a U-turn on his recent remarks about Seoul acquiring its own nuclear weapons.

"I can assure you that the Republic of Korea’s realistic and rational option is to fully respect the NPT regime," Mr Yoon said, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

The South Korean president said he is “fully confident about the US’s extended deterrence," speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Stating that he remains committed to working against the nuclear threats emerging from North Korea and working closely with the Biden administration, Mr Yoon said that the two allies are "preparing a stronger joint planning and joint execution in operating the US nuclear assets on the Korean Peninsula."

This comes just days after the South Korean leader spoke about the possibility of Seoul turning to its own nuclear armament, likely taking Washington by surprise.

South Korea is recognised as a non-nuclear nation under the decades-old Non-Proliferation Treaty aimed at curbing nuclear arms across the globe, and relies heavily on its close alliance with the US to provide a nuclear deterrent.

In a meeting with South Korea’s defence officials on 11 January, Mr Yoon said: “The North Korean nuclear threat is not only a threat to South Korea anymore, or an issue of the US merely protecting ROK. It has become a so-called common interest for South Korea, Japan and the US.”

He added: “But if the issue becomes more serious, we could acquire our own nuclear weapons, such as deploying tactical nuclear weapons here in ROK [Republic of Korea]”.

The US did not back the comment but insisted that the Biden administration “remains committed to the complete denuclearisation of the [Korean] peninsula”.

North Korea’s sustained missile testing activity has prompted other nations in the region to take bold action: in December, Japan adopted a new national security strategy ending its strictly self-defence policy on the military front.

Under this, Japan is now listing goals to acquire preemptive strike capabilities and cruise missiles in face of growing threats from North Korea, China and Russia.

Mr Yoon said he understands Japan’s move of beefing up the country’s defence muscle and emphasised the importance of trilateral security cooperation.

"I believe that trilateral cooperation is very important, and, in this regard, I don’t see many problems with Japan strengthening their own capabilities," he told WSJ.

Alarmed by the growing North Korean nuclear threat, South Korea and Japan are scrambling to strengthen their defence postures in conjunction with their alliances with the United States.