Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Korea

by Duyeon Kim

The buzz word is increasingly “tactical nuclear weapons” whenever North Korea unleashes provocations.

It buzzed again earlier this year when President Obama’s Weapons of Mass Destruction policy coordinator Gary Samore said that Washington would reintroduce U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea upon Seoul’s request. Citing his personal views in response to a Korean JoongAng Ilbo journalist’s question on the sidelines of an event at Tufts University in February, Samore’s comment rang alarm bells in the U.S. arms control community and raised eyebrows for those in South Korea.

It was the first time a senior U.S. official mentioned the possibility of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula after North Korea sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan and shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong Island in March and November 2010, respectively.

The White House immediately backpedaled on Samore’s remarks, reassuring the U.S. public and the world that Washington has no plans to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons nor are they necessary to defend South Korea. On June 20, 2010, the Commander of U.S. forces in Korea General Walter Sharp also stressed there is no need to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons.

In South Korea, Pyongyang’s nuclear developments continue to ignite calls for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons among a small number of conservative legislators and academics, most recently reiterated by Chung Mong Joon, a conservative Korean politician at a nuclear policy conference in Seoul on June 13, 2011.

North Korea’s increasing nuclear capability has essentially lifted the taboo in South Korean public discussions about nuclear weapons after they were withdrawn from the South in 1991.

While there is no strong public constituency in support of the return of nuclear weapons, there are some concerns that a continued stalemate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and facilities could lead to stronger public support for this option.

History: U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Korea
The United States deployed nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958 as part of Eisenhower’s strategy of “massive retaliation,” and built up its stockpiles there for decades. At its height the deployment is believed to have been as high as 950 warheads.

U.S. nuclear weapons were stationed in the South for 33 years until their complete withdrawal in December 1991. This was the result of President George H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiatives to withdraw all overseas tactical nuclear weapons with the exception of a number of bombs stationed in NATO countries.

The weapons were removed from Korea because the U.S. military decided they were no longer necessary to defend South Korea, and to help facilitate the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in which the two Koreas agreed not to test, produce, manufacture, possess, receive, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.

U.S. Motivations and Intentions
It is unclear what exactly prompted Samore to up the ante on tactical nuclear weapons. Some observers immediately wondered whether his remarks reflected Washington’s true position despite its public rhetoric. But most speculate it was either a message to China, or a reassuring message to its South Korean and Japanese allies of U.S. commitment.

Samore did, however, stress that tactical nuclear weapons would only serve a symbolic – not military or strategic – purpose. He also stated that America’s considerable nuclear capability in nearby U.S. navy submarines and on military bases as sufficient to defend the South. Some believe that North Korea fears the U.S.’ overwhelming conventional superiority more than America’s nuclear weapons.

The more likely scenario is that Samore intended his remarks to serve as a tactic to prod China in persuading the North to surrender its nuclear programs. The Korean paper quoted Samore as stating that Beijing would use its diplomatic leverage to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs in order to prevent the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. However, Samore did not offer evidence to support this contention. Some experts believe that Beijing will not be fazed by the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Korea, arguing that it would not threaten Chinese interests since Beijing is already surrounded by nuclear armed states. Other experts, meanwhile, believe that U.S. nuclear weapons in Korea would in fact move Beijing.

The Debate
The issue of tactical nuclear weapons warrants an understanding of key arguments from both sides of the debate:

Opposition. Staunch opposition largely comes from the U.S. military, the U.S. arms control community, and many in South Korea. Opponents argue that it makes no geopolitical or financial sense to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to Asia for the following reasons:

  • American nuclear ballistic missile submarines on patrol in the Pacific and U.S. conventional forces based in Japan are more than sufficient to deter North Korea.
  • There are no military scenarios on the Korean peninsula in which the use of tactical nuclear weapons (or even a strategic nuclear weapon) would be an attractive option for South Korea.
  • The U.S. Navy and Air Force have no desire to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. In 2010 the U.S. decided to retire the nuclear Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM-N), an archaic non-strategic nuclear weapon that the U.S. navy says it no longer needs.
  • The redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean soil would likely prompt strong public opposition.
  • Redeployment could derail the Six Party process, grant Pyongyang de facto recognition as a nuclear weapons state, and further incentivize the North to build up its nuclear stockpiles. Some even fear Beijing would react negatively.
  • The measure of the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security depends on a lot more than the number and kinds of nuclear weapons the U.S. deploys. Proponents of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea are relying on them as a crutch to avoid a discussion about the right mix of military and diplomatic capabilities that best address South Korea’s current threat environment.
  • At a time when the United States is trying to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons and forestall their proliferation, it would be immensely counterproductive to redeploy nuclear weapons to a country that has seen their removal.

In South Korea, those against redeployment argue that it would violate denuclearization efforts on the Korean Peninsula, and that U.S. forces based in Japan and naval submarines on patrol are sufficient. They also claim that it would provide a pretext for Pyongyang’s demands for U.S.-North Korea nuclear arms reduction negotiations.

Some opponents point out a difference in threat perception. They argue that the threat of a North Korean conventional or biological weapons attack is far more likely than the chances of a nuclear attack, and that nuclear weapons are irrelevant in deterring such threats.

Support. Demands by a few South Korean politicians and academics for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons resurfaced after Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Such calls gained momentum following the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the disclosure of Pyongyang’s pilot uranium enrichment facility in 2010.

The fundamental basis for redeployment is the growing North Korean nuclear threat. Key arguments by advocates are as follows:

  • There is an imbalance of power between a nuclear-armed North Korea and a nuclear free South Korea.
  • Diplomacy has failed in dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.
  • U.S. tactical nuclear weapons will add credibility to the U.S. deterrent and encourage Beijing to place more pressure on North Korea.
  • U.S. leverage to counter the North’s nuclear threat is questionable, and it is unclear whether Washington would have the political will and capital to enter into a military conflict in the event of a North Korean attack on the South.
  • Tactical nuclear weapons would deter Pyongyang from unleashing provocations in the future.

Therefore, advocates conclude that the only remaining option is to go “nukes for nukes” to balance the North Korean threat and to prevent Pyongyang from further military provocations against the South. They argue that the U.S. should redeploy tactical nuclear weapons and then negotiate mutual, simultaneous arms reductions with Pyongyang.

Some advocates understand that tactical nuclear weapons serve no strategic purpose, but still argue that the symbolic gesture is enough to send a clear message to and deter the North.

One option proposed by non-government experts is a dual track policy in which the negotiations for North Korea’s nuclear dismantlement continue until a preset deadline after which U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would be redeployed if the parties fail to resolve the issue by the deadline.

To Redeploy or Not to Redeploy
Returning tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula is not feasible in the current political climate. Senior U.S. government and military officials have made that clear. Redeployment would fly in the face of the Obama administration’s arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation policies. It appears highly unlikely that Seoul would initiate a discussion on the topic as well. It would also contradict South Korea’s position and reputation as a leader on denuclearization and non-proliferation.

However, variables that could alter the current picture include the possible election of a more conservative leadership in the U.S. and South Korea, an unforeseen drastic shift in the policy of the allies’ incumbent administrations, a change in regional geopolitics, and/or future North Korean behavior.

Given that the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is likely a non-starter for both political and military reasons in the current climate, the U.S. and South Korea should in the meantime continue to 1) strengthen their security and political relationship through closer consultations, and 2) actively work to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem without further delay.

Engaging in consultations on security cooperation, particularly in the areas of missile defense and conventional deterrence, could be a practical way to strengthen the political relationship and strengthen the credibility of U.S. reassurance. The Extended Deterrence Policy Committee established between Washington and Seoul in December 2010 is a natural venue for such discussions. A joint communiqué after the 42nd U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting in October 2010 “reaffirmed the continued U.S. commitment to provide and strengthen extended deterrence for the ROK, using the full range of military capabilities, to include the U.S. nuclear umbrella, conventional strike, and missile defense capabilities.” Washington could also provide Seoul with more information about U.S. strategic nuclear forces in joint committee meetings.

The issue of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons is rooted in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It is unclear how the tide will change if the nuclear dilemma finds no solution and in the post-Kim Jong-il era, which makes it imperative to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem.