SEOUL — President Moon Jae-in told lawmakers Wednesday that South Korea would not seek nuclear weapons and would never accept its neighbor North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.
Recent tests by North Korea have led to a renewed debate about nuclear weapons in South Korea.
“According to the joint agreement by the two Koreas on denuclearization, North Korea’s nuclear state cannot be accepted or tolerated. We will not develop or possess nuclear weapons, either,” the president said in his second state-of-the-nation address at the National Assembly, South Korea’s parliament.
Although the country sought its own nuclear weapons in the 1970s during the presidency of Park Chung-hee, the United States persuaded South Korea to abandon such ambitions.
The United States stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea until 1991, when President George H.W. Bush withdrew all such tactical weapons deployed abroad. But the country remains under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, on Sept. 3, a number of politicians suggested that the South should reconsider its own nuclear weapons program. In the weeks following that test, lawmakers from South Korea’s opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party, came to Washington to ask for the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to the country.
The debate has also taken place within Moon’s party, the Democratic Party. “The redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is an alternative worth a full review,” Defense Minister Song Young-moo said in early September, before North Korea’s latest nuclear test.
Before he was elected U.S. president, Donald Trump also suggested he was open to the possibility of countries such as South Korea and Japan acquiring their own nuclear weapons to deal with the threat of North Korea.
Moon, however, has remained adamant about nuclear weapons and has repeatedly said he would not consider redeployment, because of the possibility of raising tensions with North Korea. During a recent visit by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Seoul, Mattis and his counterpart, Song, dismissed the idea of redeploying nuclear weapons.
“When considering national interest, it’s much better not to deploy them,” Song said.
Mattis said U.S. strategic assets already provide the necessary deterrence.
Despite Moon’s strong opposition to nuclear weapons, recent polls have shown that a majority of South Koreans favor them. A poll conducted by Gallup Korea in September found that 60 percent of South Koreans supported nuclear weapons for their country in theory, a number consistent with other polls conducted recently.
Speaking to the National Assembly on Wednesday, Moon said other options were preferable to military action with North Korea.
“Sanctions and pressure are means to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and to make the right choice, ” he said. “There can never be a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula or military operations without the South Korean government’s prior consent.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.