Conservatives to push harder for nukes in South Korea

North Korean defectors and activists shout slogans next a portrait of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during a rally against North Korea's sixth nuclear test, in downtown in Seoul, on Sept 8, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - With public sentiment worsening over North Korea, South Korea's main opposition party is revving up its call for the nation's nuclear armament by bringing back the United States' tactical nuclear weapons.

However, Seoul's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae on Sunday (Sept 10) reiterated its opposition to the measure, saying that it would undermine the government's effort to denuclearize Pyongyang and trigger an nuclear arms race in East Asia.

The Liberty Korea Party, which has been boycotting parliamentary sessions, has decided to return to legislature and push for the measure. It announced a set of plans to convince Washington to dispatch tactical nuclear weapons withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in 1991.

"It is the measure that we should at least take to deter North Korea's escalating threats," Rep. Won Yoo Chul said in a statement. "It could help South Korea dispel worries about its security and show our military superiority against North Korea."

The party said it would send a group of lawmakers to Washington and have them make the case to US policymakers. Dozens of the party's lawmakers announced a plan to send a letter to US President Donald Trump, urging him to redeploy nukes.

According to a Gallup Korea poll last week, nearly 60 per cent of South Koreans agree to South Korea possessing nuclear weapons. Some 35 per cent disagreed. Nearly 80 per cent of the respondents aged 50 or above agreed to the country's nuclear rearmament.

The move came a day after the conservative party decided to end its legislative boycott of ongoing parliamentary sessions. The party had refused to attend the sessions and staged public protests since the court issued an arrest warrant on the head of a state-run broadcaster on Sept 1.

Kim Jang Kyom, who heads public broadcaster MBC, is accused by his own company's labor union of having exercised his influence to produce newscasts that were deemed favourable to the then President Park Geun Hye.

Denouncing President Moon Jae In for letting South Korea be exposed to North Korea's missile and nuclear threat, Liberty Korea Party has asserted that bringing back US tactical nukes is the only way to strike a "balance of terror" with the nuclear-armed North.

"It has become extremely clear that diplomacy or dialogue is not a solution. That means the only path we can take is through operating tactical nuclear weapons," Liberty Korea Party's Chairman Rep. Hong Joon Pyo said in his interview with the Washington Post last week.

Following North Korea's ballistic missile launches and its sixth nuclear test on Sept 3, calls have been mounting among conservative opposition parties that South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapon or at least bring back tactical nukes from the US.

While Seoul and Washington have dismissed the possibility of redeploying US tactical nukes and maintained the principle of a nuclear-free South Korea, some analysts suspect that this might change during the Trump administration.

According to a report by NBC on Friday, an anonymous White House official said that the US administration is not ruling out moving tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, if Seoul requests them, though many consider such a move a nonstarter.

"We have never reviewed a plan to reintroduce (US) tactical nuclear weapons," an official from South Korea's presidential office said under the condition of anonymity Sunday, in response to a question about Seoul's position on the NBC report. "Our commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula remains unchanged."

The official warned that if South Korea brought back US tactical nukes, Seoul would lose the moral grounds for its demand that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons. The measure would also aggravate the security dilemma among countries in East Asia, prompting them to develop their own nukes and increase existing nuclear stockpiles, the official added.

Defence Minister Song Young Moo revealed that he had brought up the issue during talks with his US counterpart Jim Mattis last week. The ministry later explained that it was mentioned as one of several ways to respond to the North's nuclear threat, but was not a proposal to bring nukes back to South Korea.

The US military has so far opposed the idea. Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Bergeson, deputy commander of US forces stationed in South Korea, said at a forum in Seoul last week that he does support the move, adding the US' nuclear umbrella is "sufficient" in deterring the North.

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