Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected and was elected to the South Korean parliament, said Thursday that Seoul should acquire its own nuclear arsenal. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Thae Yong-ho, a high-profile North Korean defector who became a politician in South Korea, said Thursday that Seoul should acquire its own nuclear weapons despite Washington's policy of extended deterrence for its ally.
"Extended deterrence is not enough to prevent nuclear warfare on the Korean Peninsula," Thae told international media during a briefing in downtown Seoul. "Ultimately, I believe that South Korea should have its own nuclear capabilities."
Thae served as the North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain before defecting in 2016. In 2020, he was elected to South Korea's parliament, the National Assembly, as a member of the conservative People Power Party.
His comments came days after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Seoul and reaffirmed that America "stands firm" in its extended deterrence commitment.
The commitment includes U.S. conventional, nuclear and missile-defense capabilities. However, questions about the reliability of the American nuclear umbrella have grown louder in Seoul amid a slew of North Korean provocations.
Earlier this month, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol -- also a member of the People Power Party -- floated the idea of Seoul looking to deploy American tactical nuclear weapons or even developing its own if the security situation deteriorated.
Public support for homegrown nukes has also been on the rise, with 76% of respondents in a recent survey favoring the idea of South Korea arming itself.
Thae said the Kim Jong Un regime does not believe that the United States would come to the defense of South Korea if it knows Pyongyang has the ability to strike an American city with a long-range nuclear missile.
"If North Korea proves its capabilities to hit major U.S. cities like New York or L.A. with its nuclear warheads, maybe the U.S. will change its position on extended deterrence," Thae said. "The Kim Jong Un regime strongly believes that the U.S. will not give up Los Angeles to protect Seoul."
The former diplomat said Pyongyang will keep developing its missile and nuclear programs until it can clearly demonstrate its long-range strike capability. The secretive state launched a record number of ballistic missiles last year and analysts say it is poised to conduct its seventh nuclear test.
However, a nuclear-armed South Korea would change the equation and give Pyongyang reason to reconsider its aggressive strategy, Thae said.
"If South Korea has direct deterrence and acquires its own nuclear capabilities, North Korea would think differently," he said.
North Korea on Thursday warned of the "toughest reaction" to expanded U.S.-South Korean military cooperation with "overwhelming nuclear force."