BUSAN, South Korea — Kim Kwan-jung, an artisan in the South Korean port city of Busan, has long loved the United States. South Korea and the United States share a history of friendship, he said, and US troops helped repel the communist north during the Korean War.

But 70 years later, with the two countries technically still at war and South Korea under increasing pressure from the nuclear-armed North, doubt is beginning to surface.

«If North Korea invaded now, I don’t know if we can assume that the United States would protect us again,» said Kim, 65.

Kim Kwan-jung owns a traditional Korean craft shop in Busan.
Michael Mitsanas for NBC News

One solution to the growing threats, according to Kim, could be for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The evolving threat from North Korea, as well as South Korean security concerns, are expected to be high on the agenda when President Joe Biden meets with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Washington on Wednesday.

Kim’s sight was once confined to the fringes. Now 71% of South Koreans say their country should build its own nuclear weapons, according to a 2022 report. survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, although the US promises to defend South Korea, a treaty ally home to 28,500 US troops, from outside attack, with its own nuclear weapons if necessary.

North Korea launched a record number of ballistic missiles last year amid stalled talks over its denuclearization efforts, with leader Kim Jong Un vowing to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal and threatening to use it against South Korea. Some experts say North Korea is using the weapons tests to ease US-led sanctionswhile others believe that the launches point to weaken the United States-South Korea alliance.

The US and South Korea have countered increasing North Korean aggression by expanding joint military exercises in the region, as part of the US effort to strengthen its overall defense posture in the Asia-Pacific in the face of growing challenge. from China. In February, officials from the two countries conducted a simulation exercise at the Pentagon to simulate a North Korean nuclear attack that was intended in part to bolster Washington’s security commitment.

But the idea of ​​a nuclear-armed South Korea has support even among people who trust the US alliance, the 2022 poll showed.

Many of those surveyed cited threats other than North Korea, such as China, which the United States says is also expanding its nuclear arsenal. More recent polls find similar levels of support: A survey late last year Gallup Korea found that more than 76% of the public supports nuclear weapons, and another poll published this month by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found around 64% support.

Rep. Lee Jae-jung, a left-leaning lawmaker who opposes nuclear weapons, said Washington’s focus on other issues, such as the possibility of a confrontation with China over Taiwan, has led South Koreans to consider their own responsibility. in self defense.

“The fact that the nuclear-armed North is not a priority for the Biden administration makes Koreans nervous,” he said.

A State Department spokesman said the US commitment to South Korea’s defense remains «iron.»

“The Yoon administration has made it clear that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program and is working closely with the United States through existing extended deterrence mechanisms,” the spokesperson said.

«The United States needs to show us that we can really trust them to protect us.»

South Korean student Lee Hak-joon

Experts say there are several reasons why South Korea will not acquire nuclear weapons any time soon.

South Korea is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, known as the NPT, which bars countries to seek them out, and withdrawing from it could bring international sanctions.

Nuclear weapons would likely anger both China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner, and the United States, its longtime defense guarantor. A nuclear-armed South Korea could also inspire others in the region, such as Japan and Australia, to develop their own arsenals.

“Anyone who genuinely believes that South Korea will get its own nuclear weapons has no idea what they are talking about,” said Jung Se-hyon, a former unification minister.

«But the strong support for proliferation speaks to the Korean people’s fears of conflict,» he added, «and the South Korean public just doesn’t trust what the Americans are saying right now.»

Official US policy is for the entire Korean peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons, which means that Washington would not support a nuclear-armed South Korea. Some argue that it should instead start sharing its own nuclear weapons with South Korea or redeploy the tactical nukes it withdrew from the country at the end of the Cold War.

“South Korea is actually going naked without nuclear weapons, and I have long argued that we need nuclear parity on this peninsula, regardless of the consequences,” said Kim Tae-woo, who was an adviser to former conservative President Lee Myung-bak. .

South Korea previously tried to acquire nuclear weapons in the 1970s, when then-President Richard Nixon considered withdrawing US troops from the Korean peninsula, said Ellen Kim, vice president for Korea at the Center for International Strategic Studies in Washington.

“What is different now is that there is a nuclear-armed North Korea threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear South Korea,” Kim said, “and North Korea continues to advance its nuclear missile capability.”

Image: Joe Biden, Yoon Suk Yeol
President Joe Biden toasts with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul in May 2022.Evan Vucci / AP File

With North Korea testing weapons believed to be capable of attacking anywhere in the US, some South Koreans worry that the US will abandon them in a conflict with North Korea. Others fear that the United States will miscalculate and trap them in a possible nuclear war with North Korea or China. Having its own nuclear arsenal, supporters say, would allow South Korea to decide whether and when to fight nuclear war.

There are also concerns that US troops may still be withdrawn one day, an idea raised by former President Donald Trump.

This cocktail of uncertainty, Kim said, is «fueling the South Korean nuclear debate.»

Rep. Jang Hye-yeong, a member of the progressive Justice Party, said South Koreans have not fully discussed the pros and cons of nuclear weapons because the topic remains taboo.

«If we as a country really have an honest discussion about the risks of developing our own nuclear arsenal, I think public support will diminish,» he said.

Some South Koreans say they mainly seek tranquility.

«North Korea is firing more missiles, China could invade Taiwan, and politics in the United States is very unstable right now,» said Lee Hak-joon, a 24-year-old public affairs student at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. «The United States needs to show us that we can really trust them to protect us.»