WASHINGTON – On a day when North Korea warned expatriates in the South to evacuate because the country was on the brink of nuclear war – a statement the American Embassy in Seoul dismissed as hyperbole – a prominent member of South Korea's Parliament argued in Washington on Tuesday that the time had come for the South to build its own nuclear weapons.
The argument was made by Chung Mong-joon, a son of the founder of the Hyundai industrial group and a former leader of the governing party. In an interview and a speech to the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Mr. Chung argued that the time had come for South Korea to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and "match North Korea's nuclear progress step by step while committing to stop if North Korea stops.
"The only thing that kept the cold war cold was the mutual deterrence afforded by nuclear weapons,'' Mr. Chung said.
Mr. Chung's position is a fairly lonely one: South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, has not endorsed any effort by the country to become a nuclear power. The South did attempt to develop its own weapon 40 years ago, but was stopped by the United States before it got very far. And while international nuclear inspectors later found evidence of laboratory experimentation with some fuel technology needed to produce a nuclear weapon, there is no evidence the South has seriously sought a weapon since then.
But talking about creating another nuclear power -- the world's 10th -- is virtually taboo in Washington, where President Obama has made limiting proliferation and securing nuclear fuel a signature element of his national security policy.
Mr. Chung's call is likely to give Washington more pause over a recent South Korean government push for the right to produce its own nuclear fuel to feed its civil nuclear program.
The United States has resisted the South Korean effort, saying that this is a moment to restrict the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing – the two paths to building a bomb – rather than expand it. Giving South Korea the right would violate an agreement it signed more than 20 years ago with the North to denuclearize the peninsula. The North has violated that agreement, both producing nuclear fuel and conducting nuclear tests, but the Obama administration fears that if the South follows suit, it would provide justification to the North to hold on to its program.
Secretary of State John Kerry said recently that the United States was seeking a diplomatic solution to the differences.
Mr. Chung, whose father ran unsuccessfully for president of South Korea two decades ago, argued in an interview that the North will never voluntarily give up its weapons. "Diplomacy has failed,'' he said. "Persuasion has failed. Carrots and sweeteners have all failed.''
He also argued that the United States should reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula as a deterrent, a step the Obama administration has rejected out of hand. "It's ridiculous,'' one senior administration official said recently. "We can deliver a nuclear weapon to North Korea from anywhere in the world,'' something the United States demonstrated last week when it flew a B-2 bomber from Missouri to South Korea for a military exercise, and announced the flight to make a point to the North.
But Mr. Chung argues that in the end, the South cannot depend on the United States to back it up. "The lesson of the cold war,'' he said, "is that against nuclear weapons, only nuclear weapons can hold the peace.''
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.