Hidden away in the private room of an underground restaurant in Seoul, a disparate group of South Koreans have gathered for a clandestine lunch. Among the mix are politicians, scientists, and military people, some of whose identities are too sensitive to reveal. This is the meeting of the newly formed Forum for Nuclear Strategy, and their lunchtime agenda is ambitious – to plot out how South Korea can develop nuclear weapons.
This once-fringe idea has exploded into the mainstream over the past months. Even South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol raised the possibility during a defence meeting, making him the only president to have put this option on the table in recent times. Now newspaper columns trumpet the idea daily, while a staggering three-quarters of the public support it. South Koreans have grown anxious about their nuclear-armed neighbour to the north, and on Wednesday Mr Yoon is heading to the White House, seeking President Joe Biden’s help.
South Korea previously flirted with the idea of developing nuclear weapons in the 1970s, when it ran a secret programme. But when the United States found out, it issued an ultimatum: Seoul could carry on, or have the US defend it, with the full force of its existing nuclear arsenal. It picked US support, and to this day tens of thousands of US troops remain stationed on the Korean peninsula.
Since then, the geopolitical situation has shifted dramatically. North Korea is building ever-more sophisticated nuclear weapons that can target cities across the US, leaving people to question whether Washington would still come to South Korea’s defence.
Here is the scenario they chew over: a belligerent Kim Jong-un attacks South Korea, forcing the US to intervene. Mr Kim then threatens to detonate a nuclear bomb over the US mainland unless it withdraws from the war. What does Washington do? Does it risk having San Francisco reduced to rubble to save Seoul? Probably not, is the conclusion those at the secret lunchtime meeting have come to.
“It is irrational to think another country should protect us. This is our problem and our responsibility,” said Choi Ji-young, a forum member and member of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party.