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