National Commentaries

“South Korean Threat Perceptions”

A View from South Korea


Threat perceptions are all relative and often do not correspond to objective reality. They are shaped not only by history, proximity, and the nature of issues between countries, but also by domestic circumstances. Threat perceptions in South Korea have long been focused on two countries, North Korea and China. A survey conducted by Hankook Research and the Institute of Social Sciences at Kangwon National University in March 2024 demonstrates that 68.8% of respondents chose North Korea as the primary military threat, followed by China at 18.0%, Japan at 5.9%, and the United States at 3.6%.1

The threat from North Korea, manifested in its nuclear weapons development, missile provocations with various ranges, drone infiltrations across the demilitarized zone, cyber-attacks, etc., is increasingly diversified. For South Korea, heightened threat perceptions toward North Korea seem inevitable given that it relies on US extended deterrence against North Korean nuclear coercion. Since the beginning of the Yoon Suk-yeol government, therefore, Seoul sought much enhanced extended deterrence and established the Nuclear Consultative group within the framework of the ROK-US alliance. This measure was made possible by efforts from the United States to reassure the South Korean public, who have increasingly favored independent nuclear armaments to sustain a balance of terror on the peninsula. Also, trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the US, and Japan has been revitalized as a way of strengthening collective deterrence against North Korea.

Threat perceptions of China are treated as a secondary priority, which, apparently, contradicts realist theories. According to neorealism, countries facing military expansion from neighboring countries perceive it as a threat and pursue a strategy of balancing. However, South Korea not only refrains from taking such actions against China but also maintains that it should remain a partner for cooperation, although recent wording on Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific hints at a more negative posture. Indeed, South Korea’s threat perceptions of China are complex, influenced by expectations of economic opportunities in the Chinese market as well as provocative behavior such as China’s accommodating stance toward North Korea, Chinese jets’ frequent entrance into the Korea airspace identification zone, and China’s economic coercion following South Korea’s deployment of THAAD. This composite threat perception has led the South to adopt a more restrained attitude toward China. While the Yoon Suk-yeol administration emphasizes strategic clarity in the context of US-China competition, it still does not explicitly attempt to balance against China and forge strategic alignment with like-minded countries to that purpose. Against this backdrop, this article examines the two threat perceptions held by South Korea and how they constrain South Korea’s strategic alignment choices with like-minded countries.

South Korea’s Threat Perceptions toward North Korea

The nature of the South Korean public’s perceptions of the threat from North Korea can be characterized in three ways. First, the rapid expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal presents a significant concern for regional and global security. With an estimated 30 nuclear warheads assembled by 2023 and the potential for 300 by 2028, North Korea could possess a formidable nuclear capability.2 While the concept of minimum deterrence traditionally involves acquiring only a few nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries, North Korea’s accumulation surpasses this threshold by a significant margin. This expansion could indicate a shift in North Korea’s nuclear strategy towards a more offensive posture. Rather than solely relying on nuclear weapons for deterrence, North Korea may seek to leverage its growing arsenal for coercive diplomacy or even offensive military actions. This possibility exacerbates the threat perceptions of the South Korean public, heightens tensions in the region, and underscores the importance of diplomatic efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear program.

Second, perceptions revolve around the question of whether the United States’ extended deterrence is guaranteed in addressing North Korea’s continuously advancing nuclear and missile capabilities.3 Previous studies highlight the significance of credibility, or the level of trust in the US as a nuclear ally to fulfill its promises to protect South Korea, in shaping Seoul’s decision to refrain from nuclear armament.4 As North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities progress rapidly, there is concern that as Pyongyang deploys its theater nuclear missiles to target South Korea and Japan, simultaneously, it could attempt to dissuade the US from retaliating fully by threatening to use ICBMs against the US mainland.5 This potential “decoupling” scenario, where the US commitment to guarantee security against North Korea is questioned during a nuclear crisis, exacerbates threat perceptions among the South Korean public. In essence, perceptions encompass not only North Korea’s offensive nuclear capabilities and strategies but also uncertainties regarding US willingness to uphold its commitments in the face of such a threat.

Lastly, another aspect of the public’s perception of North Korea is the risk of abandonment. South Korea has consistently prioritized complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization as the primary goal of North Korean policy. However, denuclearizing North Korea, which is a de facto nuclear-armed state, in a short period is challenging. Moreover, for North Korea, which is strengthening its alignment with Russia and China amidst great power competition, engaging in denuclearization talks with the United States is clearly not an attractive option. Considering the continuously advancing nuclear capabilities of North Korea, however, the idea of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament has been often suggested as an interim measure. Although nuclear disarmament and denuclearization are not strictly binary choices, this option essentially implies South Korea being officially expected to live with the nuclear threat. Nonetheless, it can be seen as an alternative that neighboring countries, including the United States, may choose to mitigate risks from North Korea and stabilize the Northeast Asia.

Recent statements on the possibility of taking interim measures by figures like Jung Pak, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and Mira Rapp-Hooper, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Indo-Pacific Affairs, have reignited concerns about the risk of abandonment among South Korean citizens.6 Along with doubts in the Biden administration, the potential victory of former president Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election, raises renewed speculation about holding another summit between the US and North Korea, which did not succeed during his previous term.7 In summary, South Korea’s perception of the North Korean threat is intensifying not only due to North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capabilities but also due to the potential risk of abandonment from the United States.

South Korea’s Restrained Threat Perceptions of China

Compared to the frequency of China’s military provocations and the scale of its military build-up, perceptions of the China threat among South Koreans are somewhat restrained. Nonetheless, it is a fact that favorability towards China among South Koreans has deteriorated more rapidly than in the past. This trend aligns with a global trend, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic and the intensification of US-China strategic competition have led to a general deterioration in perceptions of China, primarily among Western countries.

The worsening perception of China among the South Korean public can be traced back to the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. At the time of the incident, when there was intense backlash from North Korea regarding the results of South Korea’s independent investigation into the incident, with suspicions raised both domestically and internationally, China expressed an opinion suggesting that there was no clear evidence indicating who was responsible, which strained the bilateral relationship. Subsequently, China’s excessive economic retaliation against South Korea over the deployment of THAAD in 2016 was a particularly impactful event that clearly raised anti-China sentiments among South Koreans. Furthermore, amid situations such as China’s grey zone provocations along the western coast, and periodic incursions of Chinese fighter jets into South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone, which expanded its impact under the so-called active defense military strategy, it was inevitable that South Koreans’ perceptions of China would deteriorate. Moreover, China has shown a culturally imperialistic attitude, claiming that ancient history, kimchi, hanbok, and other aspects of Korean culture originated in China, which provoked universal resistance among Koreans.

Nevertheless, there also exists a perception within South Korea that China will surpass the United States as an economic powerhouse in the future. Attempting to de-risk, South Korea’s economic dependence on China stands at 25%, and economic cooperation with China remains crucial for South Korea. Especially considering the fact that economic cooperation has been dominant in South Korea-China bilateral relations over the past 30 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, it is not easy for South Koreans to deny the necessity of economic cooperation with China, which has led to restrained threat perceptions of China.

South Korea’s Strategic Choice and Constrained Alignment

Amid the strengthening strategic partnership between North Korea and both China and Russia, concern of the South Korean public regarding the threats from North Korea is unlikely to decrease in the future. Particularly, as North Korea supports Russia, the aggressor in the invasion of Ukraine, with weapons and seeks scientific and technological cooperation in return and considering the conflict in the Middle East and its implications for North Korea, interconnections across these three fronts—Russia, China-Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula—are escalating or already in a state of war. Therefore, recent emphasis on cooperation among NATO and US allied Asian countries is only likely to intensify.

Despite this trend of strengthened interconnectedness and solidarity, South Korea’s strategic alignments remain limited. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration has pledged to expand alignment with like-minded countries based on strategic clarity, presenting a foreign policy vision of a “global pivotal state.”8 However, the level of strategic alignment for responding to geopolitical risks remains very low, with the focus primarily on activating trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan, especially for deterrence and denuclearization of North Korea. The emergence of the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral to address China’s grey zone provocations is evidence of South Korea’s restrained attitude. Opportunities, such as joining AUKUS Pillar II, might be relevant in the future but it is uncertain whether Seoul would demonstrate its willingness to respond to geopolitical risks stemming from China.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that South Korea does not show resistance to the strategic narrative that contingencies in the Taiwan Strait could lead to contingencies on the Korean Peninsula, even if it has not expanded cooperation with like-minded countries to prepare for such crisis escalation. While North Korea may engage in provocations on the Korean Peninsula regardless of China’s acquiescence, South Korea’s focus remains tied to the Korean Peninsula, especially considering the contingency where North Korea sees an opportunity for opportunistic provocations during a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

Furthermore, while South Korea continues to pursue economic de-risking, economic exchange with China remains on a massive scale. The level of strategic alignment against the rise of China is not substantial, which can be attributed to the restrained nature of South Korea’s strategic approach toward China and corresponding threat perceptions, as explained above.


Threat perceptions cannot be expected to align perfectly with reality. The gap is particularly obvious for South Korea’s perceptions of the Chinese threat, leading to a discrepancy between official declarations of strategic clarity and actual behavior. Ultimately, this acts as a constraining factor on the level of South Korea’s strategic alliances, preventing it from keeping pace with the rapid transformation of the international order.

Perceptions of strategic challenges normally cannot be modified or imposed within a short time span. However, there is a need to develop a more accurate understanding of the international landscape and formulate agile strategies based on it. The international order is at an inflection point, especially with the 2024 US presidential election and the ongoing conflicts in three theaters in the Middle East, Taiwan Strait, and Ukraine, which could accelerate the pace toward such a turning point. South Korea should not continue to be fixated solely on North Korea during this period, and it needs to quickly grasp the implications of the globalization of geopolitics.

1. Institute of Social Science at the Kangwon National University and the Hankook Research jointly conducted an online survey of 1,031 Korean citizens aged 19 to 69. The survey was conducted randomly based on gender, age, and regional population composition, from March 20 to March 25, 2024.

2. “Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea,” Arms Control Association, 2023.

3. Kuyoun Chung, “South Korean Public’s Threat Perception of North Korea and Support for the US Extended Deterrence,” Korea Observer, Vol. 55, No.1 (2024): 53-72.

4. Lauren Sukin, “Credible Nuclear Security Commitment Can Backfire: Explaining Domestic Support for Nuclear Weapon Acquisition in South Korea,” Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 64, No. 2 (2020): 1011-1042.

5. “North Korea: Scenario for Leveraging Nuclear Weapons Through 2030,”National Intelligence Council. 2023.

6. Song Sang-ho, “US Nuclear envoy underlined need for ‘interime steps’ toward ultimate N. Korea Denuclearization,” Yonhap News, March 6, 2024,; Park Min-hee, “White House official hints at ‘interim steps’ to denuclearization of N. Korea,” Hankyoreh, March 6, 2024,

7. Alexander Ward, “Trump Considers overhauling his approach to North Korea if he wins in 2024,” Politico, December 13, 2023.

8. More elaborations on the idea of ‘global pivotal state’ can be found in these two
articles: Kuyoun Chung, “South Korea’s Quest to Become a Global Pivotal State,” The
Diplomat, 2023; Andrew Yeo, “South Korea as a Global Pivotal State,” The Brookings Institution, December 19, 2023.

Now Reading A View from South Korea