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.