Features | Security | East Asia

Congress’s Risky Chest-Thumping

A provision by House Republicans requiring the Obama administration to consider deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Asia was about sounding tough. It was also dangerous.

South Korea’s defense and foreign affairs ministers visited Washington last week for meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.  The bilateral talks provided constructive support for the enduring alliance, despite recent counterproductive actions by members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A dangerous provision that was slipped into the annual defense spending bill by House Republicans requires the Obama administration to consider deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Asia to “deter” North Korea. It’s a classic example of Congressional chest-thumping, intended to present a facade of toughness and savvy despite its imprudence.

The committee’s passage of the Dr. Strangelove-esque language provoked an immediate and sharply negative reaction from the South Korean government and forced our State Department to clarify that no redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula is under consideration.

The United States withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, when the United States and South Korea determined that the weapons no longer served a military purpose and would impede efforts to secure a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

Today, South Korean political and military leadership, the U.S. military, and the U.S. State Department are united in their view that the redeployment of those weapons would be counterproductive and unnecessary. American ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable bombers already provide the needed deterrent capability, in the improbable event the president would decide to use it. In addition to those nuclear forces, our advanced conventional forces deployed on the Korean Peninsula and throughout the region underscore the credibility of our security assurances.

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Gen. Walter Sharp, recently retired commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said last year: “I don’t believe tactical nuclear weapons need to return to the Republic of Korea. What the U.S. has guaranteed through extended deterrence, which includes the nuclear umbrella, has the sufficient capabilities…from stocks in different places around the world.”

Since the land-based nuclear weapons deployed to South Korea until 1991 were mostly destroyed after their withdrawal, the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the region would probably be in the form of U.S. fighter aircraft equipped with nuclear bombs. Such a deployment would be no more credible or effective than our B-2 stealth bomber aircraft, which can already deliver the same munitions in greater quantities and, launched from Missouri or Guam, wouldn’t be vulnerable to pre-emptive attack like fighter aircraft stationed near a potential conflict.

In addition to this unnecessary redundancy, 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. For good reason, nuclear weapons deployments have a way of sparking dangerous diplomatic crises. A push to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Asia could put us on a path toward a Cuban Missile Crisis of our time. And our Japanese, Australian, and New Zealand allies in the Asia-Pacific would oppose such a U.S. policy, complicating security partnerships that are critical to maintaining regional stability.

Members of Congress should more often take to heart that no matter the short term political expedience of talking tough – what they say and do has serious diplomatic and national security implications. Even if the Senate strips this reckless language from the bill before it’s sent to the president’s desk for his signature, much of the damage has already been done in alarmed Asian media reports portraying the U.S. Congress as rash and belligerent while our diplomats scramble to do damage control.

The inclusion of this provision in the defense bill is the camel’s nose under the tent for a future push to implement the policy. That is why Mitt Romney should clarify immediately that he rejects the approach advanced by House Republicans.

As we endeavor to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, and with tensions already rising in the Asia-Pacific, the proposal to redeploy American tactical nuclear weapons to Asian soil is ill considered and reflects poorly upon this country’s Congress.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson sits on the House Armed Services and Judiciary committees. Jonathan Ossoff serves as Johnson’s senior adviser for defense and foreign affairs.