North Korea and America’s Nuclear Dilemma
Redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea would offer the U.S. no strategic benefits.
Having installed the Thaad missile-defense system in South Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to decide soon whether to take another dramatic step—the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, withdrawn in 1991, to the peninsula. The intention is to show America’s commitment to protect against North Korean military aggression.
After dialogue and sanctions proved unable to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, tactical nukes may sound prudent to American ears. But South Korean officials this week made it clear that they are anything but eager to see these weapons redeployed. The U.S. would be foolish to ignore their concerns. Redeployment would be a huge mistake.
When Washington removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea, it did so primarily for military reasons. The forward basing of tactical weapons had become a liability. Each warhead had to be stored and guarded with specially trained personnel. Worse, the storage sites were vulnerable to attacks by North Korean special forces and missiles.
The U.S. understood it still needed nuclear weapons to deter the massive military threat North Korea posed against South Korea. But by 1991 it could precisely target those weapons from outside Korea, obviating the need that had prompted the deployment in the 1950s.
U.S. nuclear forces include intercontinental ballistic missiles, both submarine- and land-based, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, and bombers capable of carrying massive nuclear payloads with delivery times measured in minutes or hours. With these modern nuclear forces in place, there is no need to keep tactical weapons based in South Korea.
The issue then is one of appearance. Some South Korean politicians want Washington to put more “nuclear skin” in the game by placing tactical weapons on the ground.
But redeployment won’t increase the credibility of American nuclear security guarantees. It will increase their costs and, more importantly, their risks.
The move could encourage the dangerous deployment of tactical weapons by other states in troubled regions, such as Pakistan and India. And it will needlessly provoke not only a good number of the South Koreans, including the Blue House, but also Beijing, whose help the U.S. needs for any long-term solution to the dilemma posed by North Korean nuclear weapons.
The main focus should be on how to rid the North of the Kim clan and to unify under terms acceptable to the South. Without that, no military or diplomatic measure—including redeployment of nuclear weapons—can fully protect the U.S. and its allies against the North Korean nuclear threat.
To get rid of the Kims and to denuclearize the peninsula, the U.S. and South Korea may need to assure Beijing that they would not send military forces into North Korea. And to get the cooperation of North Korean officials working under the Kim clan, the officials need to know that they won’t suffer retribution and would be part of a post-Kim government. The U.S. and South Korea need to clarify that only the most egregious human-rights offenders would be brought to justice.
Finally, Seoul must consider how to assure a clear economic path to eventual unification. The South Korean government needs to invigorate the economy to have the capacity to integrate the economically depressed North.
The government may have to modify its protectionist approach and be more open to direct foreign direct investment to help pay the costs associated with unification. What’s immediately clear is that the hard currency the Kim clan uses to buy the loyalty of roughly two million members of the Communist Party in North Korea must be cut off.
The South also will surely have to make some sacrifices to reintegrate the economy, and the transportation, energy, agricultural and electrical systems of the North with those of the South. The question is which ones will they be willing to make. The U.S. should address these long-term issues now rather than wasting time with unneeded measures whose costs and risks far outweigh any false, momentary appearance of strength.