No to U.S. Nukes in South Korea
Image Credit: U.S. Army

No to U.S. Nukes in South Korea


Last month, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee enacted an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Bill calling for reconsidering the U.S. removal of all its forward-based nuclear weapons from South Korea. The amendment’s supporters justified the proposal by noting the refusal of the new North Korean government, led by Kim Jong-un, to resume nuclear disarmament negotiations as well as China’s alleged sale of “nuclear components to North Korea.” But the South Korean government has correctly refused to endorse the idea, one that’s presently unnecessary and even counterproductive.

The Six-Party Talks designed to negotiate the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs have made only fitful progress since they were established almost a decade ago, and they’ve effectively been deadlocked since late 2008. Hopes that Kim Jong-un, who assumed power in December in the sadly misnamed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, would change Pyongyang’s nuclear policies have so far not been justified.

The United States kept tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea for decades before removing them in 1991. At times, South Korean governments have contemplated and even begun their own nuclear weapons programs, which U.S. pressure ended. American diplomats warned that the United States could renounce its pledge to defend South Korea with U.S. nuclear weapons if South Korea sought to acquire its own nuclear arsenal, which U.S. analysts feared would lead to Japan, Taiwan, and perhaps other countries seeking nuclear weapons, too.

In one of their periodic reconciliation efforts, North and South Korea in the early 1990s were negotiating a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a declaration that obliges the two Koreas not to develop or hold nuclear weapons. The United States helped achieve this objective by removing all its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea.

But the House Armed Services Committee has now instructed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to submit a report on the feasibility and logistics of redeploying forward-based nuclear weapons to South Korea, as well as additional conventional weapons “in response to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments of the DPRK and the other belligerent actions (it) has made against allies of the United States.”

This influential U.S. committee isn’t the only place mulling redeploying these weapons. Some influential South Koreans also favor returning U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea, a move seen as less destabilizing than South Korea’s developing its own nuclear weapons. South Korea is pursuing a major civilian nuclear energy program but, unlike North Korea, has placed it under comprehensive international safeguards and foresworn using it to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Existential Threat
March 11, 2013 at 14:03

Given that South Korea is only about the size of the U.S. state of Indiana, South Korea has no less right than Israel to maintain an arsenal of nukes capable of inflicting punitive damages against its immediate neighbors in case their meddling leads to a Korean genocide. The Koreans were a united peoples for over a thousand years until successive waves of Christianity, colonialism, and finally Communism invaded the Far East and lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions of Asians, including 5% of Koreans.

Israel has been allowed to maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons despite the fact that none of its immediate aggressors possesses nuclear weapons themselves. South Korea finds itself in the unenviable position of being surrounded by Russia, China, Japan, and the U.S. Navy – a very small fish in a very big pond. And to make matters worse, its Siamese twin to the north happens to be insane and is holding a nuclear gun to its head.

The U.S. has no choice but to extend its nuclear umbrella over South Korea. The South Koreans can field a nuclear weapon in a matter of years, if not months, and any sanctions by the United States against South Korea are unlikely to be supported by much of the World. In fact, such sanctions could finally cause South Korea to realign its interests with its traditional suzeraign, China. And let's not forget what a nuclear South Korea would do to the nationalistic forces in Japan and Taiwan.

June 11, 2012 at 03:05

Why do journalists keep up the pretence that the USA does not deploy nuclear weapons to South Korea or Japan ?
What exactly do people think a nuclear submarine or a aircraft carrier are armed with ?
or has somebody somewhere decided that all the territorial waters that belong to these nations ,and are so often hotly contested, suddenly don’t count when we are talking about American nuclear weapons . I am pretty sure the North Koreans make no distinction between American nukes based on airfields in Japan or Japanese ports .
And I don’t think anybody up north would consider nuclear armed subs and aircraft carriers “visiting” South Korean ports all the time and constantly patrolling South Korean territorial waters a Mutual Denuclearization of the Korean .
I know I wouldn’t . And if I was a North Korean I would definitely want a nuclear deterrent faced with that and the way the USA has behaved in the last 20 years .
The only way there will be a denuclearized Korea is if there is a real peace and the US has made no effort towards peace , quite the opposite .

June 8, 2012 at 17:18

“There are non-stop of calls in Japan to rearm itself with nuclear weapons, it seems the Japanese love nuclear radioactive showers, US should oblige the demand of its biggest lackey by stationing thousands of nukes in Japan.”

That is a pretty coarse statement. How were you at math in school? How long ago did the Second World War end? It ended nearly 67 years ago. Assume that someone was 18 years old at the time, and add 67 years to their age. That person would be 85 years old today. No one in authority or even actively working is alive from from the World War II era. Frankly, Mao killed off far more Han than Imperial Japan ever did during his life. In addition, despite your claim, Japan has repeatedly apologized for its crimes related to the Second World War and gave up soldiers, generals, a former prime minister, and others for execution with very little fuss to the Americans and British. Also, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster seems to amuse you. I do recall that the People’s Republic of China has more than a few nuclear reactors in operation. Should we laugh when one of these reactors leaks due to a design flaw or damage from an earthquake? Or, should we laugh about floods by saying that the Chinese like to swim alot? That is the level of your remarks. As for South Korea being sensible, do you not mean fearful? China is South Korea’s real fear.

You do seem to be the reincarnation of this fellow actually:

Same rhetoric and over the top sense of grievance.

June 8, 2012 at 16:49

Where have you been for the past decade:

or this:

June 7, 2012 at 00:18

WHY? Does North Korea or China pose a risk of attacking? One could say we’ve been saber rattling and having minor exchanges since 1953, but nukes??? It seems overkill.

I thought North Korea didn’t have nukes? Putting nukes in South Korea will only give North Korea a reason of escalate R&D of their own nukes!

Perhaps something happened that we haven’t been told about? It just seems an expensive waste of time.


Kevin Stone
June 6, 2012 at 23:55

I would have to say that I agree. I do not think that it would be wise for the U.S. to share its Nuclear arsenal with any Nation. Sending our Nukes to South Korea would only heighten the situation over there. Possibly being the straw that breaks the Camels back and triggers an all out War.

John Chan
June 6, 2012 at 22:37

Why should US take the trouble to ask the S Korean? Japanese are gladly to host whatever amount of nukes on their soil, they even use nuclear power plants as front to produce and store war grade nuclear materials all over the Japan.

There are non-stop of calls in Japan to rearm itself with nuclear weapons, it seems the Japanese love nuclear radioactive showers, US should oblige the demand of its biggest lackey by stationing thousands of nukes in Japan.

Comparing SK with Japan, it seems SK is a lot more sensible. SK refuses US nukes despite facing a nuclear armed NK, while Japan cries for nukes despite it is safe from danger; the contrast proves why Japan never shows remorse about the war crimes it committed, because bellicose and aggression are in their blood.

John Chan
June 6, 2012 at 22:09

It is the philosophy and the culture of the West, “let bygone be bygone, past has nothing with the present, remorse cannot undo the deed” The West says it is 21st century now; we are no longer living in the 19th century. So they can replay their forefathers’ atrocity against rest of the world on the moral high ground, and with no moral burden at all.

June 6, 2012 at 13:26

I hope everyone can recognize the difference between the US as a whole – or even the US government – from a committee in the House of Representatives – a Republican controlled committee at that. The American people are not likely to support nuclear weapons in such a violatile part of the world. The more nukes – the more fingers on the trigger – the more likely somoone presses that trigger. We cannot deny other nations seeking nuclear weapons while we weaponize the South Koreans. And the more such weapons spread – the harder disarmament becomes. Hopefully sane heads prevail.

Leonard R.
June 6, 2012 at 12:17

I tend to agree with the author. It’s a bad idea.

But I’m curious. Who would be paying for this? South Korea or the US?

If the US is paying, it’s double stupid. If ROK is paying for it, how much?

June 6, 2012 at 10:57

If N.Korea keep on developing their nukes,it is really very stupid for S Korea,Japan, and Australia not to developed their own nukes because the N Korean wont stop until they will completely unified the whole Korea by force regardless of the cost with the backing of nuclear China and nuclear Pakistan or Russia.Actually, if you have your own nukes, it will make your homeland and South China Sea peacefull because the consequense or result of using it, is MAD-Mutually Assured Distructions….

June 6, 2012 at 10:21

The author argument is spot on, having tactical nukes in ROK could have a destablising effect in the region, especially with China believing that the ulterior motive of US nukes is to counter Chinese Dong Feng missiles.

On the other hand US having the complete triad of nuclear strike potential (ie land based, submarine based and air) can launch a nuclear strike at DPRK from anywhere. It can be from a ballistic submarine in the Yellow Sea or from a B-1B out of Diego Garcia or ICBM from teh mid west of US. The range and accuracy of US missiles i enough to counter DPRK threat, rather than placing tactical nukes in ROK, which will be counter-productive and a bug liability in times of war.

Also it would put ROK population in harms way,in case of nuclear fallout especially for a densed city like Seoul, with a population of close to 20 million.

In my opinion ROK political leaders calling for tactical nuclear to be placed in ROK are serving their own perverted political agenda, rather than a prudent strategem. It would complicate the strategic balance in the region and Japan would look into this new development with caution.

The last think anybody wants is Japan with nuclear capabilities.

My two cents worth.

June 6, 2012 at 09:56

And the Americans aren’t very good with history. When the Soviet Union wanted to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, the USA reacted and the world had the Cuban Missile crisis. At the time my parents as probably many others thought the world might end with a bang. It was resolved by the Soviet Union withdrawing those missiles in reponse to the USA promising not to station missiles in Turkey. Today that’s out the window with the USA ringing both China and the rump Russian state with their allies and missile bases. As a result, China and Russia are getting closer even if it is only to handle an (unannounced) increasingly belligerent, hostile USA?

June 6, 2012 at 08:08

Even if the US Congress approved the siting of those missiles I’d doubt if the S. Koreans would allow it. Hosting nuclear tipped missiles would antagonize one of S. Korea’s biggest trading partners, namely China. The Chinese can’t be sure won’t be used in a first strike against them by the USA and the former will retaliate by targeting those missile bases in turn and the major cities of S. Korea as well. That’s the last thing the S. Koreans need in the world’s current economic situation.

Frankie Fook-lun Leung
June 6, 2012 at 07:53

South Korea or any affected party can petition to the Senate or ask to hold a hearing to present their views. Another channel is to present credible evidence to related government agencies like the Department of Defense and the State Department.

June 6, 2012 at 07:23

“it would also be a provocation for China.””

could? i think it absolutely would provoke a strong response on the part of the PRC, more so than regular stuff these 2 countries normally throw at each other. heck it may force them to speed up nuclear modernization and cause other side effects, after all this isn’t 2500 american marines thousands of miles away in Australia its American nuclear warheads 5 minutes from Beijing in full view of the world.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief