Gallup opinion polls conducted following North Korea’s third nuclear weapons test found that approximately 64% to 66.5% of South Koreans believe South Korea should develop an independent nuclear weapons capability. They want the capability to defend against North Korea if the United States unexpectedly withdraws its security commitment to South Korea (New York Times).
The United States is fully committed to the defense of South Korea, and North Korea is well aware of this fact. For this reason, South Koreans should not be overly concerned with the latest North Korean antics. The United States stands firmly with its ally South Korea.
Nevertheless, South Koreans are understandably uncomfortable having an unpredictable and highly belligerent nuclear-armed neighbor to the North. South Korean nuclearization would be a major blow to nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The nonproliferation regime works because member countries show self-restraint by not developing independent nuclear weapons. Rather, they entrust their defense to a close security partnership with the United States, NATO, and other friendly alliances.
If the strength of the alliance is not apparent to the voting population of a non-nuclear country — in this case South Korea — then it is incumbent upon the stronger member of the alliance to take greater measures to display that commitment. These measures should include improved specification of treaty obligations, greater numbers and quality of forces deployed to South Korea, higher levels of South Korean inclusion and diplomatic collaboration in U.S. foreign policy decision-making, and improved diplomatic relations overall through improved trade relations. Deepening all facets of the relationship between South Korea and the United States will enhance the trust required for South Koreans to place the security of their nation in the hands of the United States.
Not taking proactive measures to improve the trust of South Koreans in the United States risks nuclearization of South Korea, which by example, will exponentially increase the risk of further global WMD proliferation. South Korea is a highly respected member of the international community. South Korean nuclearization will erode the taboo against proliferation, making it seem a respectable option for many small and medium-sized nations. We cannot afford the increased risk of nuclear war that this entails.