North Korean Threats Deepen Southern Nuclear Insecurities

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North Korean Threats Deepen Southern Nuclear Insecurities

Worries about the U.S. umbrella prompt some to call for the ROK to develop its own nuclear capabilities.

It became clear at the 28th Annual Conference of the Council on U.S.-Korean Security Studies in Seoul this past week that the DPRK’s recent escalatory rhetoric and other provocations has reinforced the concerns of some South Korean strategists about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence guarantees in Asia.

As the United States becomes vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear strike, the credibility of its extended deterrence guarantees to its Asian allies is called into question. Some South Koreans, including some of the former ROK general officers at the conference, already doubt that the U.S. officials would defend them against a DPRK attack if North Korea could destroy Los Angeles in retaliation. They want to acquire their own national nuclear deterrent, whose use in response to an attack against them would be much more credible than that of a third party.

If more South Koreans lose faith in the U.S. willingness or capacity to defend them, or they come to fear that potential foreign aggressors doubt the credibility of U.S. assurances, then South Korea might pursue alternative security policies, including possibly seeking their own nuclear weapons. Such a move could easily prove counterproductive by harming the ROK’s relations with the United States and other countries, resulting in a net decrement to the country’s security.

The United States continues to pledge to defend South Korea from external attack by using a variety of means, including the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, the U.S. conventional forces based in Japan and elsewhere, and if necessary through the use of U.S. nuclear weapons. Most of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. active operational arsenal are either deployed on U.S. strategic submarines or based near or on long-range ballistic missiles or strategic bombers stationed in the United States. Perhaps a few hundred so-called tactical or non-strategic U.S. nuclear weapons are stationed at several NATO countries in Europe. Although the United States no longer keeps nuclear weapons forward deployed on U.S. bases in Asia, U.S. policy is to retain the option of using its nuclear forces if necessary to defend its main Asian allies such as Japan, Australia and the United States.

In the words of the 2009 ROK-U.S. Joint Vision Statement, “The Alliance is adapting to changes in the 21st century security environment. We will maintain a robust defense posture, backed by allied capabilities which support both nations’ security interests. The continuing commitment of extended deterrence, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, reinforces this assurance. In advancing the bilateral plan for restructuring the Alliance, the Republic of Korea will take the lead role in the combined defense of Korea, supported by an enduring and capable U.S. military force presence on the Korean Peninsula, in the region, and beyond.”

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who co-signed the statement along with President Obama, professed to be reassured by such declarations: “the United States…made an exception for countries like North Korea and Iran so we have no doubts about the reassurance of a nuclear umbrella to South Korea…President Obama…reassured me personally that there will be no changes to the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States to South Korea.”

Yet, some influential South Korean strategists believe these extended guarantees have lost some credibility due to the decline in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the Obama administration’s clear preference for using conventional forces or missile defenses while deemphasizing the potential role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military operations. They have been calling for either the United States to return tactical nuclear weapons to the South or for the ROK to develop its own nuclear arsenal. In addition, they have become convinced that the DPRK is determined to acquire a nuclear weapons arsenal, so that they believe the ROK needs a similar nuclear capability to deter potential DPRK military threats.

The United States and South Korea have used various supplementary tools to supplement the nuclear guarantee. The Pentagon has forward deployed large numbers of U.S soldiers, warships, and warplanes in South Korea or nearby Japan. The U.S. Defense Department has also been developing a range of conventional and non-kinetic strike weapons that could allow for more precisely measured retaliation to DPRK provocations.

Further, the United States has encouraged the ROK to develop its own powerful armed forces, including by selling weapons to the South Korean military and by offering training and joint exercises to increase inter-alliance interoperability as well as demonstrate the readiness and credibility of the joint command to resist DPRK provocations. To curb the export of WMD-related material and their means of delivery from North Korea, the George W. Bush administration launched its Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in 2003. The Obama administration has vigorously supported the PSI, which South Korea joined in 2009, after the second DPRK nuclear test.

The South Korean response to the 2010 provocations was faulted because the existing contingency plans for retaliating to North Korean aggression required direct ROK presidential authorization, which meant the ROK counterbattery fire only occurred well after the initial DPRK shelling. The new counter-provocation strategy adopted in March of this year provides for more a prompt and vigorous response to future DPRK provocations. Nevertheless, Washington pushed for some safeguards over a hasty or excessive South Korean response that could escalate the conflict in unwelcome ways.

Specifically, the plan allows for retaliation “against the point where the attack originated” and possibly against “a second point.”  South Korea will have the lead role in any military response, but Seoul should consult with the United States before retaliating and must request the use of any U.S. assets. Although still controversial due to the risk of North Korea’s misperceiving the response as an escalatory move rather than an equivalent “tit-for-tat” response, the counter-provocation contingency plan has clarified each country’s role and removed sources of possible disagreements and tensions.

In October 2012, the ROK Defense Ministry announced that the ROK and the United States had agreed on Revised Missile Guidelines permitting South Korea to acquire ballistic and cruise missiles with longer ranges and heavier payloads. Under a 2001 accord with Washington, Seoul agreed not to deploy ballistic missiles having a range of more than 300 km or a payload of more than 500 kg. Under the new guidelines, South Korea can now possess ballistic missiles with a range up to 800 kilometers (500 miles) with a payload of 500 kilograms, or a heavier payload for missiles with shorter ranges, with the guidelines permitting an inverse tradeoff between distance and weight such that a 550km missile can now carry a 1,000 kg payload. The agreement also permits the ROK to operate drone aircraft having a range of 300 km (186 miles) with payloads up to 2,500 kilograms (5,510 pounds), as well as shorter-range UAVs with no restrictions on their payloads.

The new guidelines, the first change in more than a decade, allow the ROK to station ballistic missiles much further from the DMZ and still strike all DPRK territory. Their reduced vulnerability increases crisis stability since the ROK command would feel less of an urgent need to use them before losing them to a DPRK attack that could catch them in their launch pads.

In addition to augmenting the ROK’s deterrence capabilities, the longer-range missiles could supplement ROK missile defenses by preemptively limiting the damage to South Korea in any war by allowing ROK defenders to rapidly neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and conventional strike capabilities. In particular, the ROK’s ballistic missiles can more effectively destroy the DPRK’s mobile or underground missiles that are about to be launched. For the same reason, the larger and heavier reconnaissance and combat UAVs can remain above North Korea in wartime and use its own missiles against any fleeting DPRK targets as well as guide longer-range ROK missiles towards them.

When Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta met ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin in Washington in October 2012, the two sides affirmed they would continue to discuss what other steps they would take to bolster extended deterrence in the face of North Korea’s missile buildup, nuclear weapons tests, and other provocations.

Despite these moves, some South Korean security experts continue to question the credibility of U.S. extended security guarantees to defend the ROK from external threats using whatever means necessary. But they reason that, if the U.S. nuclear weapons were already in South Korea, the DPRK leadership might be more deterred since the weapons would be more visible and could more plausibly be fired, perhaps accidently, following a DPRK attack. By this logic, the North Koreans could be even more credibly deterred if the ROK possessed its own nuclear weapons, since the South Korean government and military would be even more inclined to retaliate to a nuclear attack against its population or territory.

Advocates of either variant hope that threats to return nuclear weapons to the ROK, regardless of whether they were American or South Korean, would function like the 1979 NATO decision to upgrade the alliance’s intermediate-range nuclear forces and result in a two-track process that would see North Korea, with strong encouragement from Beijing, eliminate its nuclear weapons rather than accept a ROK-based nuclear deterrent. Public opinion polls show that a majority of South Koreans would support either nuclear option.

But the DPRK started its nuclear weapons program when U.S. nuclear weapons were in South Korea and has continued to develop its own nuclear weapons even after the U.S. withdrew them. Pyongyang has made clear it does not consider possessing its own nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to induce the ROK and the U.S. to accept a nuclear-weapons-free Korean Peninsula. It wants nuclear weapons in order to exert its own deterrence on the United States, negating potential U.S. threats to attack the North. If the ROK deployed nuclear weapons, the most likely DPRK response would be to target them preemptively rather than agree to eliminate its own nuclear weapons program.

Moreover, the ROK’s neighbors would not welcome a return of U.S. nuclear weapons to the Peninsula or South Korea’s acquisition of an independent nuclear deterrent. China in particular would strongly object since any nuclear weapons based in the ROK that could attack targets in the DPRK would most likely be able to devastate targets in China as well. Further, Japan would find it harder to not acquire nuclear weapons if the ROK obtained them, which would further alarm Beijing and many other countries such as Russia. Finally, President Obama in his recent Berlin speech renewed his commitment to reduce the world’s nuclear weapons.

U.S. experts have considered exploiting Chinese fears that North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities will lead Japan and perhaps even Taiwan to acquire missile defenses and nuclear weapons in response. Still, the expectation, in Beijing and elsewhere, is that none of these countries would make the controversial decision to pursue their own nuclear deterrents as long as they feel reassured that the United States will protect them. In the past, U.S. officials managed to end the clandestine nuclear weapons programs of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea by warning them that the United States could respond by annulling its pledges to defend them. Although ROK-U.S. relations have never been better, the Obama administration needs to subtly remind South Koreans of this possibility if the movement for ROK nukes genuinely takes off.