Features | Security | East Asia

No to U.S. Nukes in South Korea

A U.S. House committee is pressing the U.S. to consider redeploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. It’s a bad idea.

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.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Yang Uk, senior research fellow at Korea Defense and Security Forum, has argued that having U.S. nuclear weapons physically present in the South would make Washington’s nuclear umbrella much more credible to the North, since they were “an expression of the U.S. intention to respond strongly to relevant North Korean actions.” Yang Uk also maintained that having the U.S. nuclear weapons forward based could make the U.S. response time more rapid, which could prove crucial in a war.

Conservative leader Chung Mong-joon, who aspires to become the presidential nominee of the ruling Saenuri Party, has also called for returning U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea. Chung told a press conference that, “The threat of a nuclear counterforce may be the only way to change the North’s perception of the South.” Conversely, he argued that, since North Korea was already pursuing nuclear weapons, its behavior couldn’t become any worse, so “there is no reason not to respond in a proportional manner.”

The new North Korean regime test launched a long-range rocket on April 13 and appears to be preparing to conduct another nuclear weapons test, its third, in the coming days. South Korea and the United States have called on North Korea to cease such tests, avoid further provocations, and resume the nuclear disarmament negotiations.

China has for its part also called on the North Korean government to return to the Six-Party Talks on Korea’s denuclearization and avoid conducting more long-range tests. Even so, members of Congress believe that Beijing isn’t pressing Pyongyang sufficiently hard to moderate its behavior, and may actually be helping North Korea circumvent the sanctions for fear that North Korea’s collapse would lead to a massive refugee flood into North Korea and other problems.

But deploying U.S. nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula is neither necessary nor a wise policy to try to deter a North Korean attack on the South. For a start, South Korea falls under the U.S. nuclear umbrella regardless of whether U.S. nuclear weapons are stationed on its territory. The United States has signed a bilateral treaty to defend South Korea from an external attack. U.S. officials have long said that this alliance pledge could involve the use of U.S. nuclear weapons if necessary.

The 28,500 U.S. soldiers already in South Korea give meat to this defense pledge. In addition to their contribution to South Korea’s direct defense, their presence serves as a clear manifestation of the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea from a direct attack. The troops also make more plausible the idea that the United States would retaliate for any nuclear strike against the South. Another factor that would encourage U.S. military retaliation against the North for any large-scale attack would be the inevitable death and injury of the many American civilians who work in South Korea on a regular basis.

Although the Pentagon has periodically announced plans to make further reductions in the number of American soldiers in the South, the Obama administration has designated the Asia-Pacific region its highest priority security region and has committed to preserving U.S. military power in the region, including by augmenting U.S. striking power in northeast Asia.

The reality is that the United States doesn’t need to have tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea to inflict nuclear strikes. If necessary, the Pentagon can draw from a wide range of nuclear weapons in assembling a strike package against North Korea from systems that are deployed elsewhere. Systems for such a U.S. nuclear strike include the long-range ballistic missiles based in the United States or on U.S. strategic submarines as well as shorter-range missiles and bombs launched by strategic bombers from airfields in the United States or elsewhere.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It’s true that putting U.S. nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula would increase the prospects of any war escalating to the use of nuclear weapons, but for the wrong reasons. They could serve as a magnet by making North Korean leaders believe that they had to destroy these weapons preemptively before the United States could use them. Alternately, even if North Korea launched only a conventional invasion initially, U.S. commanders might decide they had to detonate these forward-based nuclear weapons before they would lose control of them to the advancing North Korean troops. Stationing U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea also makes them more vulnerable to North Korean commandoes or to terrorist seizure.

It could be argued that returning U.S. nuclear weapons to the Korea Peninsula could send a powerful warning message to Beijing and induce the Chinese to increase pressure on Pyongyang to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the removal of the U.S. weapons in the South. For several years, President Barack Obama and other U.S. leaders have been cautioning Chinese leaders that North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles is requiring the United States to strengthen its military forces near China, including both conventional forces and missile defenses.

But the Chinese could respond, as they have in the past when threatened, by strengthening security ties with Pyongyang, Russia, and other countries that oppose U.S. nuclear threats against North Korea. Zhang Liangui, an expert on Korean Peninsula studies at the Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, has cautioned that, “Putting the weapons in the ROK would certainly press the DPRK, but it would also be a provocation for China.” Any nuclear weapons based in South Korea that could attack targets in North Korea would most likely be able to hit targets in China as well.

Some Chinese and South Korean analysts believe that U.S. efforts to return its nuclear weapons to South Korea are part of the U.S. pivot to counter China’s growing military power.

Finally, South Korean and U.S. relations with other countries could also be harmed if their governments were seen as reversing their commitments to reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons in the world in general, and the Korean Peninsula in particular. Ultimately, it could become considerably more difficult for them and others to challenge the North’s ongoing development of a nuclear arsenal if the South also has nuclear weapons.