A prominent South Korean legislator says his country should consider developing its own nuclear weapons or hosting a US arsenal as a way to pressure North Korea and its ally China.
Chung Mong-joon, a billionaire businessman who belongs to the ruling conservative New Frontier Party, said on a visit to Washington on Tuesday that the latest crisis with North Korea showed that the approach of diplomacy had failed with Pyongyang.
"The lesson of the cold war is that against nuclear weapons, only nuclear weapons can hold the peace," Chung said, giving the example of the previous long-standing nuclear stand-off between the Western allies and the Soviet bloc.
The former presidential candidate argued that South Korea has the right to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty and then to match North Korea's nuclear work step-by-step, only stopping if Pyongyang did likewise.
"It would send a clear warning that, by continuing its nuclear programme, North Korea is releasing the nuclear genie in East Asia," Chung told a conference of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"North Korea, and for that matter China as well, should know that South Korea has this option if it persists in possessing nuclear weapons," he said, referring to Beijing's alliance with Pyongyang.
Chung, in a view endorsed by some United States Republicans, said the US also had the option to return to South Korea the nuclear weapons which it withdrew in 1991 at the end of the cold war strategic arms race against the Soviet Union.
The remarks by Chung, the son of the founder of the Hyundai conglomerate, are not mainstream and few experts expect a country that has tried hard to use pop culture to give itself a friendly image to seek a nuclear arsenal.
The US was unenthusiastic about Chung's proposal. An official called South Korea a "committed partner" in the treaty and said Washington was "steadfast" in its guarantee of providing a nuclear umbrella.
The issue is expected to be on the agenda when US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Seoul this weekend.