Not a Good Idea: American Nukes in South Korea
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Not a Good Idea: American Nukes in South Korea


Following North Korea’s most recent nuclear test on February 12th, conservative officials in the South have resumed calls for the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula.

“The only way to defend our survival would be to maintain a balance of terror that confronts nuclear with nuclear,” said Representative Shim Jae-cheol at a National Assembly meeting, before recommending the redeployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs) to his country. Meanwhile other officials have recommended an independent South Korean nuclear deterrent.

These calls from ROK conservatives may not come as a surprise: Similar exhortations followed previous North Korean provocations. What’s more, this latest iteration of North Korean bellicosity has included some especially ominous rhetoric. DPRK officials have suggested that U.S.-ROK joint military exercises could ignite a war, and that South Korea may meet its “final destruction.”

There is no question that the South has reason to be anxious regarding its security. But this latest round of security challenges on the peninsula begs the question: Why do some South Koreans want tactical nuclear weapons, and what would they do for ROK security?  Specifically, how would they reinforce the U.S. nuclear umbrella?

American tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Korean peninsula in late 1991 as part of President George H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative. Shortly thereafter, the ROK and DPRK signed a Joint Declaration of commitment to a nuclear weapons-free Korea. The North’s subsequent development of a small, independent nuclear stockpile upended that agreement. The DPRK also maintains that the ROK’s continued alliance with the United States violates the pact, as the South remains under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If the South were the victim of a major attack, the United States could defend it using its strategic nuclear arsenal of homeland-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs),bombers and sea-based submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).  

It is not surprising that many in the South feel that they have gotten short shrift as the North has continued to develop nuclear and missile capabilities: After agreeing to the withdrawal of U.S. NSNWs, they now face a nuclear-armed, highly-provocative neighbor to the North. And despite the fact that the United States goes to great lengths to assure the ROK of its continued conventional and nuclear commitment to its security, there is skepticism in the South as to whether American nuclear assistance would be forthcoming in a time of crisis. In a 2012 Asan Institute survey, only 48 percent of South Korean respondents said that they believed the United States would employ its nuclear forces in response to a nuclear strike by the DPRK on South Korea. A significant number of South Koreans, including high-level officials seem to believe that the return of NSNWs would help to fill this perceived strategic gap.

One reason for continued South Korean interest in tactical nuclear weapons is their role in so-called “de-coupling.” In any alliance that involves extended nuclear deterrence, there is a fundamental credibility problem: Why would a nuclear state like the United States use those weapons on behalf of South Korea, and invite retaliation on its own homeland? Put differently, why would an American president ever voluntarily trade Washington for Seoul? For the time being, the DPRK probably doesn’t have the missile capabilities to reach the continental United States. If it acquires them, however, and the North actually has the ability to hold U.S. cities at risk, this dilemma could be of even greater concern.  

David Powell
February 15, 2014 at 15:13

If the Clinton Administration had possessed the necessary resolve, and not done a lame “deal” like the Obama successors are doing with Iran, this problem would not exist on the Korean peninsula and the US, ROK and other allies in the area would be a lot better off.

April 7, 2013 at 03:09

The Diplomat and most comments miss the point. Tactical nukes are not about "terror", but they are about stopping, as in "smoking" N Korea's million-man army BEFORE it gets across the 38th parallel, and/or about swiftly eliminating any artillary and/or rocket barrage that might be a prelude to an invasion attempt.  A few tactical nukes also targeted on select military and politcal sites might help too.

Actually, the N Korean saber rattling is part of a greater game, distracing the USA from important commitments in the Middle East. Our carrier force in and/or near the Persian Gulf has been reduced from three carriers to just one, and I'm sure that really scares Iran.

April 4, 2013 at 16:51

Don't give South Korea any freedom of nukes. They have this Teheranno-Tehranno-Seoul_Street thing going on and they might be using Iran as an assistant for their sphere of influence. It's like giving Japan some nukes and then they TURN AGAINST us. The Teheranno thing is enough to not trust South Korea. North Korean spies are also another problem. They build this problem for 30+ years and they continue to do this. Let them read and weep. It be good for some American industries to come back online.

March 8, 2013 at 05:34

This has to be one of the lowest quality article The Diplomat has published. The US has tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. So why restate it? Does the writer have a new point we need to think upon?

No matter how badly you think of North Koreans, they will not nuke their own people. And no matter what you think of South Koreans, they do not want to fight their brethren to the north to unite the country.

North Korea has a nuclear weapon and who really cares? China and Japan are historical enemies, and Russia looms as a possible foe. For a nuke to land in Japan or the United States is pretty much self-genocide. More probable is the missile will be shot down in minutes of a launch. I am sure Russia and China capable of shooting down any missile from NK also.

The tactical nukes are for China and Russia to think about. They serve no other purpose. They will never be used. Talk all you want Russia, China and North Korea – talk is cheap and that is all you have.

March 8, 2013 at 05:03

It would be to generate concessions to have them removed for a freeze in the north. As always with the DPRK we go around in a circle. It gives deterrence in that you can launch a quick preemptive strike that you dont get with an ICBM. As soon as the silo opens boom. But you can get that from a sub too. As with Cuba regardless of the location it would have been a full spectrum war not limited to only the US and Cuba. Plus it gives them a reason to jusiltify their program in response to the tacts in the south. So it has to occur at the correct time as a response to their developments not to justify their developments. To generate concessions escalation for a descalation. But you also have consider missle defense as a deterrent. We have done it all before in the past, history repeats. They have nukes to prevent invasion, which as before would means war with the PRC. The DPRK don’t have worry about invasion or require nukes. The issue and risk of conflict is the nukes.

March 5, 2013 at 08:01

I wouder how far will the country allow, our weapons to leave the united state.
when s.Korea loses the war, and n.Korea has our left over weapons. Scary.

John Chan
March 5, 2013 at 04:15

@Free Thinker,

ICBMs could fly East to the USA or could fly West to China; the day Japanese has the nukes, the day the USA became an regional power of North America only, and the Americans start the nightmare of nuclear version of the Pearl Harbour recall; vengeance for the two nukes the American dropped on the Japanese has been screaming in the Japanese heads and their revisionist history books. Japanese under the leadership of history and atrocities deniers like Abe and Ishihara are very resentful about American military occupation of Japan; Japanese vow for vengeance for the 70 years humiliation the American has been giving them.

[...] Not a Good Idea: American Nukes in South Korea ( [...]

Admiral Ho
March 5, 2013 at 00:54

Yeah, you would like nothing better than to see other countries blow up each other and then you take over?  I hope central American countries, Carribean and South American countries get nukes too to fight the pushy, subversive, and inasive war-mongering US.  The Ming Chinese Navy were foolish to give their sea navigational charts to the Venetians in the early 1400s.

Keith Lucas
March 4, 2013 at 22:02

South Korea should build nukes and missile defense and make DPRK back down.  Certain freedoms are more important than peace.

Keith Lucas
March 4, 2013 at 22:02

South Korea should build nukes and missile defesne and make DPRK back down.  Certain freedoms are more important than peace.

Free Thinker
March 4, 2013 at 21:50

The more Nukes surrounding China, the better.

Notice them staying faaar away from Russia, India and America, and only bullying the smaller, weaker, non nuclear nations.

John Simpson
March 4, 2013 at 14:23

Whatever.  The same very good question remains – What do you need nucelar weapons – tactical or otherwise – on South Korea's soil for?

If I were China, I will base nuclear weapons in Cuba or Central America, or N Korea if Washington has nuclear weapons on Korean soil if ever Washington places nuclear weapons in S Korea.

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