Calls in South Korea for nuclear weapons as parliamentary poll looms

SEOUL (Reuters) - A senior figure in South Korea’s conservative ruling party said on Monday his country should have nuclear weapons, as concern over how to respond to rising tensions with North Korea loomed as an election issue ahead of parliamentary polls in April.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye addresses the nation at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Opposition liberals have blamed President Park Geun-hye for lacking a clear strategy to deal with the North, which recently launched a long-range rocket and last month tested its fourth nuclear device.

Park plans to address parliament on Tuesday, where she will seek bipartisan support for addressing the security threat from Pyongyang, the presidential office said on Sunday.

Won Yoo-chul, floor leader for the ruling Saenuri party, on Monday said South Korea should adopt “peaceful” nuclear weapons and missiles against North Korea’s “fearful and self-destructive” ones.

He said South Korea should be independent from ally Washington’s so-called nuclear umbrella to deter North Korea’s nuclear threat, or reconsider deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn from South Korea in 1992 under a pact for the denuclearization of the peninsula.

“We can’t borrow umbrellas from next-door every time it rains. We should wear a raincoat of our own,” Won said.

Defence Minister Han Min-koo later told lawmakers Seoul was not considering acquiring nuclear weapons.

A poll of 1,000 people released on Monday by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper showed 67.7 percent favored South Korea having its own nuclear weapons. A poll released on Sunday by Yonhap news agency found 52.2 percent in favor of domestic nuclear weapons.

Calls for an independent nuclear deterrent tend to crop in South Korea during times of tension with the North.

The JoongAng Ilbo poll found 54.8 percent supported Park’s decision last week to pull out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex operated jointly with North Korea, while 67.7 percent backed the plan to deploy a U.S.-run Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defense system following the rocket launch.

Park’s party, which holds 157 out of 293 parliamentary seats, is expected to retain its majority in April 13 elections. Park’s single five-year term expires in February of 2018.

However, a poll released by Realmeter on Monday showed Park’s support rating fell to 42.2 percent in the second week of February from 42.9 percent a week earlier, while her negative ratings rose.

“During and after the Lunar New Year holidays, South and North Korea’s super-hardline behavior against each other ... and political disputes over solutions to the South-North relations appear disappointing to many people,” Realmeter said.

Editing by Tony Munroe and Simon Cameron-Moore