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(News Focus) Trump's remarks fuel debate over S. Korea's nuclear armament

All Headlines 12:08 March 28, 2016

SEOUL, March 28 (Yonhap) -- Republican front-runner Donald Trump's remarks about allowing South Korea to nuclearize are adding fuel to a simmering debate over Seoul's potential nuclear option to counter Pyongyang's escalating threats, observers here said Monday.

In an interview with the New York Times on Friday, the U.S. real-estate magnet said he would be "open" to allowing the South and Japan to build nuclear arms against the North and China. He argued they would go nuclear anyway if the U.S. keeps its "current path of weakness."

Analysts said that it is noteworthy that the U.S. political heavyweight has raised the possibility of the South's nuclearization. But they dismissed Trump's remarks as part of his "surreal and populist" campaign rhetoric.

"His mentions of the South's nuclear armament and the potential withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula are quite worrisome," said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

"But that may be just empty talk as he caters to the public opinion in the U.S. that the South should stand on its own feet militarily (possibly with nuclear arms) rather than depending on what he claims to be a costly U.S. security umbrella."

Whether Trump's remarks were part of his aggressive bid for the White House, his stance gave a boost to those who argue that Seoul should consider building nuclear arms or asking Washington to redeploy tactical nuclear arms that were withdrawn from the peninsula shortly before an inter-Korean denuclearization accord took effect in 1992.

Calls for nuclear armament reemerged here after Pyongyang's nuclear test in January and long-range rocket launch in February.

A series of prominent politicians and scholars such as former Saenuri Party leader Chung Mong-joon and the party's current floor leader Rep. Won Yoo-chul have demanded that Seoul consider arming itself with nuclear bombs.

The demand for the South's nuclearization has risen amid growing misgivings about U.S. security commitment. Some observers noted that under the U.S.' "retrenchment" policy of reducing international engagement and expenditures, Washington might feel reluctant to immediately engage in a contingency on the peninsula.

A security expert here said that the South should nurture at least "latent" nuclear weapons capabilities to better deal with the evolving nuclear threats from the North and potential threats from neighboring states.

"We need to seriously review the nuclear option, meaning we should own the capabilities to develop nuclear arms in a minimum period of time in order to use them in case of a contingency here," he said, declining to be identified for the sensitivity of the issue.

"We should consider potential threats not only from the North but also from a nuclear-armed China and Japan, with which we have a long-standing territorial feud."

Those in support of the South's nuclear option say that a nuclear-power status would enable the South to bolster national pride and secure a more balanced relationship with its superpower ally, the U.S., and curtail heavy expenditures on its conventional military buildup.

Opponents, however, emphasized that the benefits of nuclear arms should be weighed against the "heavy costs," which they say will range from international isolation to the dismantlement of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

In particular, they said that the South, if it were to opt to go nuclear, would jeopardize the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that the U.S. has so avidly cherished even with a declaration of a "nuclear-free" world.

"So far, North Korea is the only country that tried to develop nuclear arms under the NPT regime though it later withdrew from the treaty," said Park Ihn-hwi, an international studies professor at Ehwa Womans University.

"India, Pakistan and Israel have pursued nuclear arms, but they were not NPT members. So should it pursue nuclear arms, the South, now regarded as an exemplary non-proliferation state, would deal a blow to the NPT order."

Park added that the South with an "export-driven economy" could be slapped with crippling international sanctions should it go nuclear. Exports contribute about 70 percent of the South's annual economic growth.

"The South's economy would not be able to withstand the stress from the sanctions even for half a year," he said.

The sanctions for the South's nuclearization would also include a ban on its import of fuel to power its 23 nuclear reactors that account for some 30 percent of its total electricity production, analysts said.

Kim Tae-hyun, international politics professor at Chung-Ang University, said that it would be "wiser" for the South to utilize the calls for nuclear arms to pressure the U.S. to bolster its nuclear deterrence against the North.

"To allay rising public security concerns here, Seoul can demand that Washington explore ways to enhance the credibility of its security commitment to the defense of its crucial Asian ally," he said.


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