Nuclear Muscle: Not Only Belarus, South Korea Also Wants To Get Nukes Amid Global Threats & ‘US Unreliability’

Voters in Belarus have supported constitutional amendments that will authorize the country to host nuclear weapons. And Belarus is not the only one. More and more countries are looking to go nuclear amid ongoing tensions in Europe and elsewhere. 

Russian news agencies quoted the Belarusian election commission as saying that over 65 percent of people voted in favor of the change. With this move, Belarus could again host nuclear weapons for the first time since the country relinquished them after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Speaking at a polling station, President Lukashenko said that he could ask Russia to return nuclear weapons to Belarus. “If you transfer nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, then I will turn to Putin to return the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions,” Lukashenko said.

Earlier, there were reports that Ukraine also aims to re-acquire nuclear weapons amid Russian military action in the country.  However, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the UN General Assembly that Ukraine has no plans to regain nuclear weapons.

“Giving up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, we have no plans to regain nuclear weapons,” Kuleba had confirmed.

Ukraine signed the treaty with the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia in 1994, agreeing to give up the nuclear arsenal left behind by the Soviet Union in its territory in exchange for security guarantees by the other signatories.

More Nuclear States?

For decades, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been a major source of concern for its neighbor, South Korea as well as western powers. Seoul does not possess such arms and instead, is protected by the nuclear umbrella of its trusted ally, the US.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently released an opinion poll that revealed a huge backing for nuclear weapons in South Korea. While many South Koreans are optimistic about their security relationship with the United States and the capabilities of their own military, they nevertheless want nuclear weapons for their country.

Those who advocate nukes also consider them as having a certain kind of prestige attached to them.

The South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March 9, and conservative contenders have already revived the debate. The opinion poll reveals that domestic support for nuclear weapons is widespread, and the next president may have to deal with it.

While US tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests and gained alarming success with its ballistic missile program since then. According to reports, Pyongyang already has the ability to produce dozens of nuclear weapons.

A missile is on display during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the country’s founding father, Kim Il Sung. (File photo)

South Korea is still protected by the US nuclear umbrella, which ensures that if necessary, the US will deploy its nuclear weapons to defend the country.

For many years, the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons appeared out of grasp, yet the topic often crops up. Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye reportedly urged the US to redeploy the tactical weapons in 2016, but the request was rebuffed. 

According to the poll, 71% of South Koreans favor nuclear weapons, which is somewhat higher than prior results. Researchers looked into how fiercely South Koreans feel towards their support and discovered that it has a long-term impact.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in with his US counterpart Joe Biden. (via Twitter)

South Koreans, for example, strongly prefer an independent arsenal over simply having US nuclear weapons stationed in the country, showing that they want more control over how and when nuclear weapons are employed on their behalf.

In 2017, a similar survey conducted by Gallup Korea revealed that over 60% of South Koreans supported nuclear weapons. The largest support is found among residents aged 60 and above.

US-South Korea Alliance 

Should the US not consent to redeployment of the nuclear weapons, some have suggested that Seoul might “independently seek nuclear armament”.

Last year, two American scholars, Jennifer Lind and Daryl Press, backed these claims in a Washington Post op-ed, stating that nuclear weapons in South Korea may be “the only way” to salvage the alliance. It’s a very odd policy prescription to advocate for alliance proliferation. 

South Korea, according to Lind and Press, is caught in a difficult position, “pulled apart by powerful geopolitical forces”. Joining US-led regional security measures risks upsetting South Korea’s most important trading partner, China. However, refusing to comply with American demands to more effectively counterbalance China could jeopardize US security.

North Korea
US Army soldiers gather around their Multiple Launch File Rocket System vehicles after a live-fire drill near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas. (File photo)

However, the latest survey report found out that contrary to popular belief among security experts, South Koreans’ support for nuclear weapons stayed robust even when they felt confident in the relationship with the United States. According to experts, the findings indicate that US policymakers need to gain a better grasp of South Korean perspectives.

“We can’t just ignore this. We can’t treat it as, ‘the public is emotional on these issues,’ ” said Toby Dalton, co-director and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program and a co-author of the report.

Why Do South Koreans Want Nukes?

Nuclear armament is seen by South Koreans as a tool to boost the country’s international standing. When confronted with the possibility of international repercussions or a US army departure from South Korea as a result of going nuclear, pro-nuclear responders still stood strong on their opinions.

“They want to take that next step on the international stage,” said Karl Friedhoff, a fellow in public opinion and Asia policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a polling expert based in South Korea who co-authored the report. “The people who support weapons basically support them no matter what.”

The desire for nuclear weapons among South Koreans is frequently considered as a means of countering threats from North Korea, a nuclear-armed state that is presently trying to increase and expand its arsenal. 

However, the study indicated that South Koreans are increasingly viewing China as a long-term danger. They also regard Japan as posing a lesser military threat than their two nuclear-armed neighbors.

According to Lami Kim, a co-author of the report and a national security professor at the United States Army War College, a majority of South Koreans believe North Korea would not denuclearize, which has reinforced their desire for a nuclear program.

“Some may have held out hope during the last diplomatic engagement with the North in 2018 and 2019, but after that failed, most feel their skepticism toward North Korea’s denuclearization has been vindicated,” she said.

However, the current military advancements in South Korea may be more indicative of Seoul’s establishment of a serious non-nuclear strategy for regional security than of nuclear proliferation. Efforts by the US to lower the risk of nuclear war might also strengthen the alliance, stabilize the Peninsula, and ease proliferation concerns.