Amid soaring tensions between the US and North Korea, calls are growing in South Korea for the nation to deploy nuclear weapons. Seoul has for decades forgone the development of atomic weapons in exchange for security commitments under the US’s “nuclear umbrella”, while Washington withdrew its remaining warheads from the peninsula in 1991.

But revelations last week about the rapid advancement of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme have prompted renewed debate about whether South Korea should encourage redeployment of US warheads or even develop its own weapons of mass destruction. Spearheading the charge is the main opposition Liberty Korea party, which has appealed to redeploy tactical nuclear warheads amid the escalating stand-off between Pyongyang and Washington.

“We should bear in mind that freedom is not free. Therefore I urge the government to take measures for the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons,” said Lee Cheol-woo, party secretary-general. The notion was reiterated on Sunday by party spokesman Chun Hee-kyung, who said that a “nuclear balance” was the best way to ensure the security of South Korea.

The prospect would infuriate North Korea, which claims it is developing nuclear and ballistic missiles only to protect itself from the threatening behaviour of the US and South Korea. Last week, Pyongyang mooted missile strikes near Guam in what it called an effort to “interdict” the US nuclear bombers based there.

North Korea has dominated the US’s foreign policy agenda since successfully testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month. A leaked intelligence report also found the reclusive Asian nation now posed a nuclear threat to the US mainland. In South Korea, the opposition’s calls to redeploy nuclear warheads are in contrast with the approach taken by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has pledged to engage with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“Peace on the Korean peninsula will not come by force,” Mr Moon said on Monday. “I am confident the US too will react calmly and responsibly to the ongoing situation under the same basic stance as ours.” A spokesperson for the president told the Financial Times that the government was “not considering introducing — or re-introducing — tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.”

But Seoul’s softer approach to relations with its northern neighbour is also coming under fire in the media. An editorial in the Korea Economic Daily last week raised the case for nuclear armament, citing uncertainty about whether the US would protect the nation of 50m. “We need to have the measures to overpower North Korea militarily.

It is time to discuss nuclear armament in terms of ‘the balance of terror’ — ‘a nuke for a nuke’. [South] Korea is sufficiently qualified for that matter,” it read. South Korean officials say the country is capable of producing a nuclear warhead and experts believe production might only take several months. However, the prospect has not gained traction among high-ranking officials, who take pride in espousing the country’s commitment to a nuclear-free peninsula. Continue reading.