President Obama greets his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, at… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )
SEOUL — Perhaps it is merely basic human desire to keep up with the neighbors, but an increasing number of South Koreans are saying that they want nuclear weapons too.
Even in Japan, a country still traumatized by the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is a debate about the once-taboo topic of nuclear weapons.
The mere fact that the bomb is being discussed as a policy option shows how North Korea's nuclear program could trigger a new arms race in East Asia, unraveling decades of nonproliferation efforts. The government in Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February and is believed to be preparing a fourth.
In South Korea, the pro-nuclear faction is becoming surprisingly mainstream. Its most prominent champion is Chung Mong-joon, a ruling party legislator and a scion of the Hyundai business dynasty.
"Suppose you have a dangerous neighbor with a gun," Chung said in a recent interview. "You have to take measures to protect yourself. And being a gun control advocate isn't going to help you."
Chung shocked attendees at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference last month in Washington by calling for South Korea to build its own bomb. He argues that it is time to try something new after two decades of failed diplomacy and engagement with North Korea.
"We have to admit that everything we've tried has failed," Chung said.
To some extent, it is a matter of national pride with a touch of machismo. South Korea's economy is 20 times the size of the North's, but the North has gate-crashed the elite club of nuclear-weapon states.
Separate opinion polls taken this year by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and Gallup Korea showed nearly two-thirds of South Koreans in support of nuclear weapons, preferably under their own control.
"It is mostly an emotional, knee-jerk response to the frustration of the North Korean nuclear threat," said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. "People tend to say, yes, they want nuclear weapons, but not if they think through the costs and consequences."
Under the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that went into force in 1970, only the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France are recognized as nuclear weapons states, with the understanding that they will share the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy.
If South Korea were to build its own nuclear weapons, it would have to withdraw from the treaty, as did North Korea.
Another increasingly popular view holds that the United States should reposition tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea that were withdrawn in 1991. The withdrawal was a key demand of the pro-democracy camp that dislodged South Korea's military dictatorship.
"It would provide a trump card that would enable a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear problem. Most of all, it would become a game-changer in the geopolitical and strategic dynamics surrounding the nuclear crisis," says a much-discussed essay written last year by Cheon Seong-whun of the Korea Institute for National Unification, one of South Korea's most respected nuclear analysts.
South Korea had a secret nuclear weapons development program in the 1970s under Park Chung-hee, the late military dictator whose daughter, Park Geun-hye, is the current president. It was abandoned under pressure from the United States.
President Park, who took office in February, hasn't picked up the call to develop nuclear weapons. But the current administration is bristling at the limitations that result from the nonproliferation pact. Its civilian nuclear reactors use fuel purchased from the United States under a 1974 nuclear cooperation.
South Koreans want to renegotiate that agreement, which expires next year, to lift a ban on reprocessing the spent nuclear rods, putting them in a better position to eventually develop their own nuclear weapons.
Japan and South Korea are in a similar position in that they are both heavily dependent on civilian nuclear technology that could eventually be spun off for military use.
Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pushed to keep nuclear reactors open — despite the antinuclear sentiments that followed the 2011 post-tsunami disaster at Fukushima — by arguing that their reactors are in themselves a nuclear deterrent.
"What they are saying in a tacit manner is that 98% of our program is peaceful, but we have the potential for something else," said Narushige Michishita, a professor at the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Outspoken hawks such as Shintaro Ishihara, former governor of Tokyo and a leader of the Japan Restoration Party, openly call for the development of nuclear weapons.
"Your words lack clout unless you own nuclear weapons," Ishihara provocatively told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in November. "Russia took our land, and it has nuclear weapons. China also has nuclear arms, and it is trying to grab Japan's land."
Peter Hayes, a leading nonproliferation advocate and director of the Berkeley-based Nautilus Institute, says Japan could probably develop a nuclear weapon in five to 10 years if it chose, but will more likely conclude that it is safer under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
"This is mostly chest-thumping and an attempt to put pressure on China and the U.S. to do something about North Korea," Hayes said. As for South Korea's nuclear ambitions, he says, "This is a dumb, stupid idea, but it makes good press."