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