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(News Focus) S. Korean society roiled by debate on nuclear bomb
By Lee Joon-seung
SEOUL, Feb. 15 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's third nuclear weapon test has reignited the fierce debate on whether South Korea should give up its denuclearization policy and own a nuclear bomb.

   Following the North's Feb. 12 nuclear blast, growing numbers of conservative politicians and scholars in Seoul are calling for South Korea's nuclear armament, though the government remains unchanged in its official position of not pursuing independent nuclear sovereignty.

   The debate comes as Pyongyang claimed it succeeded in "miniaturizing" a nuclear device on its third test and threatened to conduct additional experiments to further upgrade its weapons capabilities. The communist country added that it can launch more long-range rockets and missiles as it already has sent up the Unha-3 space vehicle, which experts estimated has a range of over 11,000 kilometers, enough to target the United States.

   Demands for Seoul to rethink its defense strategy also comes as the South's technological superiority in conventional weapons, which it has maintained since the 1980s, has largely been negated by advances made by Pyongyang in the WMD field. There is no way to determine how many nuclear weapons the North has, but analysts in Seoul and Washington have estimated that they may have a handful at present and have the means to increase this arsenal steadily in the coming years. Before the latest test that South Korea claims resulted in a yield of 6-7 kilotons, Pyongyang blew up smaller atomic devices in 2006 and 2009.

   "The asymmetric threat posed by North Korea's nukes has reached the point that is compelling Seoul to review its strategic options," a military source, who did not wish to be identified, said. He did not elaborate on what action can be taken but hinted that there are rising calls, particularly from conservatives, to discard the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that went into effect in February 1992.

   Reflecting this, Saenuri chairman Hwang Woo-yea said in a meeting of senior party officials earlier in the week that a "military balance" must be maintained on the Korean Peninsula and speculated that the nuclear test could cause tension to rise in Northeast Asia. He said Seoul should be prepared for a "nuclear domino" effect in the worst case. The remarks can be interpreted as a sign that the party chief thinks the country should look into the nuclear armament option.
Rep. Chung Mong-joon, the former chairman of the ruling party, was more blunt, and said South Korea needs a "fundamental policy" to cope with the North Korean nuke issue. The seven-term lawmaker stressed it is time for the country to have its own nuclear deterrence capability.

   Others such as Park Byung-kwang, a senior researcher at the state-run Institute for National Security Strategy, said it is prudent to examine all available options. The researcher said a denuclearization declaration has effectively become meaningless with the North moving ahead with its WMD buildup in defiance of the international community. He said options that can be explored include asking for the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the country, or going ahead with an indigenous program to build up its nuclear weapons capability.

   Kim Tae-woo, the former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, said it may be more prudent to approach the nuclear armament issue in a step-by-step manner.

   "It is physically impossible for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons under the current non-proliferation international regime, yet it may be feasible for the country to go ahead with the enrichment of fissile materials that can give the country nuclear arms development capability," the expert said. South Korea has been pushing for the right to reprocess spent fuel rods from its 21 commercial reactors but has made little headway so far due to opposition from Washington.

   Highlighting the "delicate" nature of nuclear armament, Kim Jang-soo, who was named last week to head the national security office at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, said the matter cannot be approached easily.

   "Everything can be placed on the table and be examined; however, the nuclear armament issue is something that is very sensitive and should not be dealt with in a light manner even though it seems to be a matter being circulated in political circles," he said. The reservations expressed by Kim can reflect the views held by the incoming Park Geun-hye administration, which will be tasked to tackle the issue head-on since the U.N. Security Council is in the process of reviewing fresh sanctions that can be slapped on the country. Park takes office as the country's first female president on Feb. 25.
Despite growing demand for South Korea to defend itself against the North's WMD threat, many in the government, parliament and academia said it may not be easy to take such a step.

   "If South Korea wants to make nuclear weapons, the country will have to leave the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which is not an easy move to make," a government insider said. He pointed out that countries that leave the treaty are made outcasts by the international community.

   South Korea cannot afford diplomatic or commercial isolation from the rest of the world because its economy is heavily dependent on trade and foreign investments.

   "The situation for Seoul is different from Pyongyang, which really has nothing to lose," the official said.

   In addition, a nuclear armed South Korea can trigger an arms race in the region that may lead to greater instability.

   Concerns have been raised that Japan and even Taiwan may want to possess nuclear deterrent capability, which could set the stage for the breakup of a decades-long international non-proliferation regime.

   Moreover, detractors have pointed out that even if the South acquires its own nuclear weapons capability, it will still be at a disadvantage.

   Kim Hee-sang, the head of the Korea Institute for National Security Affairs, a private think tank, said, even if everyone has nuclear weapons, the side that has the least to lose will always enjoy an edge. He said because the impoverished North has less to loose in a standoff than the affluent South, a nuclear option does not promise the kind of safety that some claim.

   "The only option is to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons," he said.

   The main opposition Democratic United Party, also said they do not want a nuclear arms race and said it is best to try to engage the North in talks to resolve the WMD standoff.

   Meanwhile, Seoul's interest in the nuclear issue has deep roots going back as far as the late 1950s, with the country acquiring the U.S.-made TRIGA Mark II research reactor in 1959 and the building of a large commercial nuclear energy program. Alongside the commercial use of nuclear power, Seoul had a clandestine nuclear weapons program pursued by late President Park Chung-hee in the 1970s when Seoul relations with Washington deteriorated and there was talk of the United States pulling all of its forces from South Korea. Such a move could have seriously jeopardized the country's security.

   The nuclear arms program ended with Park's assassination in 1979, and was put to an end by 1992 when the country announced its denuclearization policy stance.

   Besides the South Korean nuclear arms effort, the U.S. had deployed tactical nuclear weapons from 1957 onwards in the form of artillery shells and short range missiles, with total numbers reaching around 700. This arsenal has all since been withdrawn from the country.

   yonngong@yna.co.kr
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