Tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991, but last year’s incidents have led to a widespread belief that the current deterrence setup has been a failure. Of course, public opinion in South Korea has always been mixed over North Korea – and how to respond to it. But last year’s attacks have pushed a growing number of South Koreans toward the view that Pyongyang is a substantial threat.
In a recent poll conducted by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, 80 percent of those questioned said that South Korea should retaliate with military force if the North decides to provoke the country again. Meanwhile, more than half of respondents said they were cautious towards North Korea, regarding it as an adversary rather than a partner.
These results have considerable implications, especially with the upcoming presidential elections, which take place late next year. Already, some of the frontrunners have aired their views on how to enhance deterrence and security on the peninsula, and the question of tactical nuclear weapons is being viewed as a useful metric for measuring candidate views on inter-Korean relations.
What’s interesting in all of this is the fact that the controversy regarding nukes in South Korea continues despite the fact that officials in the White House have repeatedly stated that the United States has no intention of redploying such weapons on South Korean soil. Gen. Walter Sharp, recently appointed Commander of ROK-US Combined Forces Command, has stated that he doesn’t believe tactical nuclear weapons need to return to the peninsula.
'What the US has guaranteed through extended deterrence, which includes the nuclear umbrella, is sufficient capabilities from stock we have in different places around the world,' Sharp said. 'They don’t have to be stationed here in Korea for either deterrent capability or use capability.'
It’s not unusual for the North Korea question to reemerge before a major election in South Korea – it has been a key issue since the early 1990s. North Korea, meanwhile, is also wary of such elections, and is therefore careful about the timing of any provocations and rhetoric. Pyongyang has, for example, been vocal about how the ‘competitive’ nature of President Lee Myung-bak’s government has hurt North-South relations, often branding him a ‘traitor’.
North Korean provocations have always been understood as part of the leadership’s brinkmanship, designed to secure more concessions from the South. What’s new, however, is the clear change in South Korea’s perceptions of a nuclear North Korea. Ever since the early stages of the nuclear problem in 1994, the goal of South Korean policymakers has been for North Korea to eventually abandon its nuclear programme. But North Korea’s nuclear tests have made South Koreans fully aware of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, and they now see it as more dangerous than ever.
The reassessment of the need for tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea is a response not only to North Korea’s attacks last year, but also to growing frustration within South Korea over the limits of talking with North Korea. The fact is that deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula would have little effect on the current US nuclear umbrella, and would probably reduce by a few minutes at most the time it takes to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the fact that the issue is being discussed is a measure of how quickly South Korea is losing patience with its neighbour.
Of course, with the United States against bringing tactical nuclear weapons back to South Korea, it’s doubtful that it will happen any time soon. But this isn’t going to stop the issue being discussed, and it’s expected to loom large over next year’s election.
This is troubling because it will undoubtedly increase tensions between the two Koreas just when increased South Korean security worries are complicating bilateral ties. As a result, the prospects of the eventual denuclearization of the peninsula are likely to recede further. At a time when it should be increasingly evident that engagement rather than confrontation is the only real option, inter-Korean relations seem to be heading the other way.
Talk of bringing more nukes to an already unstable region is bound to exacerbate concerns about security in Northeast Asia. And the idea that redeployment of tactical nukes is being seriously discussed by lawmakers in South Korea is a worrying sign that a ‘domino effect’ of nuclear proliferation is, in theory, a real possibility.
Dong-Joon Park is a Resident Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.