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Thinking Nuclear: South Korean Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by Toby Dalton, Karl Friedhoff, and Lami Kim
Reuters
Reuters

New public opinion data finds robust support for a domestic nuclear weapons program in South Korea.

Once a topic for the political fringe, acquisition of nuclear weapons has become a mainstream feature of South Korea’s national security discourse. Public opinion polling over the last decade shows consistent majority support for nuclear possession. Leading political figures publicly discuss the idea of either developing a South Korean domestic nuclear weapons program or seeking the reintroduction of US tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. In recent national elections, the conservative party included the return of US nuclear weapons in its policy platform. However, public attitudes around the distinctions between an independent nuclear arsenal and US deployment, as well as the potential implications of pursuing either option, are not well explored. Even though the nuclear issue is not prominent in campaigns ahead of South Korea’s March 2022 presidential election, the growing threats in the region and doubts about the security alliance with the United States make the nuclear question increasingly relevant.

This report investigates public attitudes on these issues and finds robust majority support for a domestic nuclear weapons program and smaller majority support for the stationing of US nuclear weapons in South Korea. When asked to choose between the two, the public overwhelmingly prefers a domestic weapons program to deployment of US nuclear weapons. Public support for both options appears to be insensitive to potential negative repercussions for South Korea’s relations with China, South Korea’s economic security, the alliance with the United States, or hopes for North Korea’s denuclearization.

Key Findings

  • Support for nuclear weapons is robust, with 71 percent in favor of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons, while 56 percent support a deployment of US nuclear weapons in South Korea. However, when asked to choose between these two options, the public overwhelmingly prefer an independent arsenal (67%) over US deployment (9%). Interestingly, 40 percent oppose US deployment, while just 26 percent oppose a domestic nuclear arsenal
  • Public attitudes on nuclear weapons do not strongly align with rationales for armament offered by some South Korean politicians and analysts.
    • Six in ten (61%) remain confident the United States will defend South Korea in a conflict with North Korea.
    • Confidence that the United States will carry through on alliance commitments is positively associated with support for nuclear weapons, contrary to beliefs that alliance commitment concerns are a main driver of public views on nuclear acquisition.
    • Some politicians argue that nuclear acquisition would increase the likelihood that North Korea will disarm, yet 82 percent of South Koreans believe it is unlikely North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons, and they are the most likely to support a domestic weapons program.
  • “Threats other than North Korea” are a main driver of support for a domestic nuclear arsenal, and a majority (55%) say China will be the biggest threat to South Korea in ten years.
    • But the prestige offered by being a nuclear weapons state is a strong secondary factor. One in four South Koreans (26%) ranked increasing South Korea’s prestige in the international community as the main reason for their support of nuclear weapons, similar in number to countering the North Korean threat (23%).
  • Among the majority that supports nuclear weapons acquisition, potential consequences —such as pressure from China, international economic sanctions, or US troop withdrawal —do not strongly diminish support. Only 11 percent of supporters changed their view when faced with these hypothetical consequences.
About the Authors
Toby Dalton
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment
Toby Dalton is co-director and a senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order.
Marshall M. Bouton Fellow for Asia Studies
Council expert Karl Friedhoff
Karl Friedhoff was a Korea Foundation-Mansfield Foundation US-Korea Nexus Scholar and a member of the Mansfield Foundation’s Trilateral Working Group prior to joining the Council. Previously, he was a program officer in the Public Opinion Studies Program at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies based in Seoul, South Korea.
Council expert Karl Friedhoff
Lami Kim
Assistant Professor, U.S. Army War College
Lami Kim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, a US-Korea NextGen Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum.