A Big Stick for North Korea?

The debate about deploying nuclear weapons to South Korea is important. And one the U.S. needs.

By Michael Mazza for

Last Tuesday, U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson and his adviser Jonathan Ossoff criticized what they described as a “dangerous provision” in this year’s house version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The provision, which calls for the Obama administration to consider deploying additional conventional and nuclear forces to the Western Pacific, isn’t nearly as “dangerous” as Johnson and Ossoff make it out to be. It is, instead, a reasonable effort to pursue U.S. policy goals in Northeast Asia.

Johnson and Ossoff don’t give it a fair shake. For starters, one can’t help but wonder if they have actually read the provision, whose language, which they describe as “Dr. Strangelove-esque,” is anything but. Congress, the provision reads, “encourages further steps, including such steps to deploy additional conventional forces of the United States and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region.”

And what would the NDAA, should it become law, actually require?

“Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of State, shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report on deploying additional conventional and nuclear forces to the Western Pacific region to ensure the presence of a robust conventional and nuclear capability, including a forward-deployed nuclear capability, of the United States in response to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments of North Korea and the other belligerent actions North Korea has made against allies of the United States. The report shall include an evaluation of any bilateral agreements, basing arrangements, and costs that would be involved with such additional deployments.”

The language is deliberate and measured. It simply requires that the administration report on a possible solution to a very real, very serious problem – one that the administration has thus far failed to adequately address.

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But name-calling is useful when one’s primary criticism is weak, as it is here. The crux of their argument is that the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula – which, by the way, isn’t explicitly called for in the House NDAA language –  “would be counterproductive and unnecessary.”

Why unnecessary?

Johnson and Ossoff argue that such redeployment would serve no military purpose given that other U.S. assets, including ballistic missile submarines and bombers, already provide a satisfactory and effective deterrent. In this they are likely right. The U.S. military wouldn’t be challenged in striking North Korea with nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang knows it.

But Johnson and Ossoff would do well to remember their Clausewitz.

A central axiom in On War, of course, is that “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” Like war, force deployments are a “continuation of policy by other means.” Redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula might not serve a military purpose, but would they serve political ends?

Johnson and Ossoff think not. Rather, they contend the redeployment would be “counterproductive.” As they write:

“…the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea would destabilize the region and undermine diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to halt its own nuclear program. China and Russia would feel threatened by the deployment of American nuclear weapons on Asian soil and might consider reciprocal deployments of their own tactical nuclear forces.”

But to the contrary, it might just be the case that deploying nuclear weapons to South Korea would underscore diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to denuclearize. The fact is that as long as the Kim regime, or some iteration of it, remains in power in Pyongyang, there will be no successful U.S. diplomatic effort to disarm the North.  American diplomatic and economic leverage is simply too limited.

But Chinese leverage is much more extensive. If Beijing were to actually enforce sanctions against the North, rather than willfully undermine them, or were to cut Pyongyang off from the Chinese honey pot, Pyongyang might finally feel enough pain to bring it to the table with a willingness to deal. But of course China has refused to use that leverage or to sincerely cooperate with the United States, South Korea, and Japan in resolving the North Korean nuclear conundrum. Johnson and Ossoff are correct in asserting that China wouldn’t like to see U.S. nukes in South Korea, but the path towards their withdrawal would be plain to see and, to a great extent, within Beijing’s control.

Of course, decisions about nuclear weapons deployments require extensive deliberation. Nobody should be in a rush to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula. But talking about doing so – giving the appearance that such a step is receiving serious consideration – will demonstrate a U.S. seriousness of purpose with respect to North Korea that has too often been lacking. And it will help present a starker choice to Beijing about what sort of regional security environment it would like to live in.

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Johnson and Ossoff denigrate the NDAA language as “Congressional chest-thumping, intended to present a façade of toughness and savvy.” But there’s room in diplomacy for a little chest-thumping. Sometimes one needs to both speak loudly and carry a big stick.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow for the American Enterprise Institute.