South Korean Public Growing Uneasy With North Korean Nuclear Threat, U.S. Role in Protection, Officials Say

June 23, 2023 2:09 PM
Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy Sailors wave ROK and U.S. flags during a port visit of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in Busan, Republic of Korea, Sept. 23, 2022. US Navy Photo

Some South Koreans are questioning how well the U.S. would defend Seoul against a nuclear attack, two members of its National Assembly said Thursday.

The “Korean public is less confident about the alliance” now as Pyongyang continues to test cruise and ballistic missiles and China rapidly increases its nuclear arsenal, said Jae-jung Lee, chair of a key technology committee in the National Assembly, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center Thursday.

The rising support from 60 to 70 percent of the population “to self-protect ourselves” is surprisingly coming from Koreans who don’t believe Seoul is behind Pyongyang in military capabilities, as well as from those who feel it is increasingly vulnerable to attack, she said.

“The nuclear threat is an existential one,” said Rep. Ami Bera, (D-Calif.) and a member of the congressional Korean caucus. He added, “the threat is growing” as Pyongyang fields solid-fuel propelled missiles and develops its undersea launch and hypersonic capabilities.

The Korean lawmaker viewed the recent Washington Declaration in April – which marked the 70th anniversary of the alliance – as easing those concerns. In it, Presidents Joe Biden and Yoon Suk Yeol agreed in the joint statement,” The ROK has full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitments and recognizes the importance, necessity, and benefit of its enduring reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.”

In effect, Lee said the declaration “is mostly about the reaffirmation of the NPT [nuclear nonproliferation treaty.” Hyung-du Choi, member of the People Power Party said it didn’t appear as solid as the NATO agreement on American response if a member is attacked.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced at the same time there were now five conditions “where they would use nuclear weapons” to defend the regime, including launching a pre-emptive attack, Mi Sue Terry, director of Wilson’s Asia Program, said.

With Russia and China silent on imposing any new sanctions on Pyongyang, “what is the consequence for him” in raising the nuclear stakes on the peninsula? “Nothing,” she said, answering her own question.

Moderator David Sanger, national security correspondent for The New York Times, said that lack of response shows “a level of fatigue” that has set in over continued missile testing and nuclear weapons expansion in China.

Japan also has a role in deterrence, Choi said. He called for much closer collaboration between Korea, Japan and the United States “in detecting and deterring” these launches and “to intercept at an early stage” before they strike their target.

Kim Jong Un in front of a the North Korea intercontinental ballistic missile. KCNA Photo

Korea, with the world’s 10th largest economy and heavily involved in information technology, finds itself being squeezed in the manufacturing, economic and trade competition between the United States and China, the Korean lawmakers said.

Beijing remains its largest trading partner, but it “has this great country philosophy” when it comes to dealing with Korea, Lee said. When it comes to the United States now – particularly on manufacturing micro-chips, she said Koreans ask themselves: “why are we being treated this way?”

Although it might not be intentional to “inflict pain” in pulling more chip manufacturing back into the United States, “we’re trying to make it [a transition] as smoothly as possible” on the Korean public and national economy. All three legislators pointed to increased Korean investment in the United States to rebuild its chip industry.

Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands are the global leaders in that manufacturing area.

Bera said the need to shift to domestic production grew out of the pandemic’s spotlighting “over-reliance on a single country” for critical parts to keep industries like automotive functioning.

For Korea though, “decoupling from China is a growing concern” economically, Choi said. Over the years, “China is no longer dependent on us” for critical parts and goods. “They have more leeway to be confrontational with us.”

China demonstrated this when the Koreans agreed to accept the American Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense [THAAD] system to deter a missile attack from the north. Beijing increased tariffs and imposed embargoes on certain Korean products. At the same time in 2017, China stretched its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Korean legislators need to work more closely across partisan lines to address these changes in that relationship in trade, he added.

“Political consensus is important,” he said.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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