Why U.S. Nuclear Weapons in South Korea Are Not a Good Idea

May 20th, 2012

Last week, the United States House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 national defence authorization bill calling for an examination of the re-deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in South Korea.  Specifically, the amendment called upon the Obama administration to submit a report on the feasibility of re-introducing tactical nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula – which had previously been stationed there for a large part of the Cold War – more than two decades after they were removed by President George H.W. Bush.  These weapons had questionable military value during Cold War – much like their counterparts in Europe – and for a variety of strategic, political and diplomatic reasons – appear equally problematic now.  It is not clear that such weapons would greatly mitigate threats from Pyongyang, or that they would make the region any more stable and secure.  Perhaps more importantly, such a policy would do nothing to aid current discussions about removing U.S./ NATO tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, or for broader nuclear proliferation efforts being pursued by the White House.

There is little to suggest that the re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons – presumably free-fall bombs delivered by nuclear capable aircraft – in Northeast Asia, would significantly modify North Korean behaviour, or increase overall regional security.  In fact, it is not particularly clear that the South Korean government are entirely convinced by the wisdom of this plan – although the idea has never fully gone away amongst some military cadres in the capital, particularly when relations with the North become strained – or that a US.. ‘trip wire’ would make officials in Seoul more comfortable with a nuclear North Korea.  Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that U.S. intentions – not least tactical nuclear deployments – were a key reason why North Korea sought a nuclear capability in the first place, while U.S. nuclear and conventional superiority is a key reason why they are so keen to hold on to them now.  As such, a re-deployment seems likely to create more instability and concern in Pyongyang, which may make future nuclear testing and arms build ups by the transitioning regime a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Moreover, such a move would appear to fundamentally undermine the move towards establishing a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, which has long been the goal of both the U.S. and South Korea, and likely create a set of unwanted nuclear complications (which will also include Japanese reactions) for the U.S. as it ‘pivots’ towards Asia-Pacific.

If such a policy were to go ahead, it would also presumably complicate discussions about removing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe under the NATO nuclear sharing agreement.  Essentially, any new deployment of tactical nuclear weapons (especially in Northeast Asia given its proximity to Eastern Russia) would significantly undermine any strategic bargaining power that the U.S. and NATO might have in Europe; surely it would appear to Moscow that what might be taken away by one hand in the west (NATO tactical nuclear weapons) had simply been replaced to its east by the other (in South Korea)?  Consequently, it would be difficult to see why Russia would agree to reduce its own tactical nuclear weapon ( TNW) deployments (in Europe or elsewhere) – a key objective of U.S. and NATO strategy; without TNW talks with Russia, it is difficult to see much progress on other US-Russian nuclear arms reductions measures.  It is equally difficult to see how China – a key player in the nuclear talks with North Korea, and in broader regional security dynamics – would be particularly impressed by the imposition of more U.S. military ordinance (in addition to missile defence assets) on its border.  While more broadly of course, placing greater emphasis on nuclear weapons would appear to undermine the Obama administration’s whole nuclear non-proliferation agenda.  Essentially it would not look very good for an administration that has championed the cause of reducing the role, utility and number of U.S. nuclear weapons, and has reignited the global push for ‘nuclear zero’, to be deploying such ordinance outside its territory.  This would also clearly have implications – perceived or otherwise – for U.S. faithfulness to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

As the U.S. shifts focus back towards Asia-Pacific after a decade of misadventure in the Greater Middle East, increasing the importance of nuclear weapons in this region seems unlikely to be something that the Obama administration wants to entertain.  Indeed, the Obama administration has been quick to reject this measure, which is almost certainly driven in part by the dynamics of election year politics in the U.S.  However, it is unlikely that that this debate will go away – particularly amongst the more hawkish members of Congress – and a further North Korean nuclear test or other threatening developments on the peninsular may create more pressure to seriously consider such a move again in the future.  Either way introducing more nuclear weapons into the already complex regional strategic balance seems unlikely to make North Korea renounce its nuclear weapons, or even change its current policy trends, but instead seems likely to increase instability and undermine the current (albeit strained) equilibrium.

Picture by wuwei1101

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About the Author

Andrew J. Futter

Dr Andrew Futter is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester, UK. [email protected]