Elections, Nukes, and the Future of the South Korea–U.S. Alliance | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

Elections, Nukes, and the Future of the South Korea–U.S. Alliance

The impressive victory of President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party in South Korea’s April 2020 National Assembly elections obscured underlying security policy tensions within South Korea (or the Republic of Korea, ROK). These tensions reflect a deep and long-standing domestic split over how to deal with a nuclear North Korea and, to a lesser extent, concerns about the security alliance with the United States amid rising regional threats. In public opinion polls a consistent majority of South Koreans support acquiring nuclear weapons in some form, and centrist and conservative political parties have adopted official platforms calling on the United States to re-station nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Looking beyond the November 2020 U.S. election, the stage is set for a potentially disruptive period in ROK-U.S. security relations. If today’s tensions build, a worst-case clash of ideas and priorities between Seoul and Washington could rupture the ROK-U.S. alliance and lead South Korea to pursue nuclear weapons. This is not highly likely, but it is imaginable.

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