Seven Reasons Why Putting U.S. Nukes Back in South Korea Is a Terrible Idea
Here are seven reasons why the United States should not seek to deploy nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula.
South Korean officials announced last month that the United States would begin to routinely deploy strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula to help deter North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The South Korean demand for tangible signals of America’s defense commitment is unlikely to stop there, and prominent South Korean politicians are publicly pushing for the United States to return nuclear weapons to the peninsula. Some American politicians, like Sen. John McCain, have made similar suggestions.
If there were real military or political benefits to redeploying nuclear weapons in South Korea, this idea would be worth a serious review, but redeploying them today makes no sense, and indeed could exacerbate the current crisis over North Korea’s nuclear threats.
Here are seven reasons why the United States should not seek to deploy nuclear weapons in South Korea.
1. Our military does not need them. The United States can hit any target in North Korea from within the United States or elsewhere with precision conventional weapons. If a conflict escalates and requires the use of nuclear weapons, these can be delivered from a variety of existing, secure platforms far from North Korea — and both North and South Korea know it. Stationing nuclear weapons in South Korea would not deter North Korea from periodic tactical provocations, but could increase pressure on North Korea to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. They would also make tempting targets for North Korean missiles, which can hit all of South Korea.
2. They make our conventional weapons seem less credible. Putting nuclear weapons in South Korea might be useful as a political signal of our commitment to the alliance, but could also lead Seoul and Pyongyang to doubt U.S. military commitment or capabilities. If U.S. conventional capabilities are so superior, then why do we need nuclear weapons? It is also not clear how the deployment of nuclear weapons will provide more assurance of America’s commitment to South Korea than the deployment of 28,000 American troops and the residency of nearly 200,000 American citizens. During the Cold War, the United States deployed hundreds of nuclear weapons in Europe and that never calmed the concerns of nervous European allies about our commitment to them.
3. We don’t have them. There is no ready U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons that could be redeployed in South Korea. President George H. W. Bush ordered the last U.S. nuclear weapons removed from South Korea in 1992 as part of a global initiative to put tactical nuclear weapons in storage to prevent their theft. The nuclear weapons we used to deploy in South Korea have mostly been dismantled, and the rest are out of service and awaiting destruction. Any weapons the U.S. opted to deploy would have to come from elsewhere, namely from the small arsenal deployed in Europe, thus causing political problems and strategic challenges with European allies. Other options might include returning nuclear weapons from retired to active duty, something we have not done before and that would take time and money.
4. There is no place to put them. No secure storage facilities suitable for tactical nuclear weapons exist in South Korea. Nuclear storage bunkers are not like gym lockers. They are highly advanced and must be able to protect against unguarded access even in the event of a coup or conflict. U.S. bunkers in South Korea have not been used in 25 years. It would take a few years to rebuild and recertify suitable storage.
5. Why Make North Korea’s actions seem more legitimate? American deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea would be used by North Korea to further legitimize its own nuclear weapons. South Koreans who advocate for nuclear weapons say it would create a symmetrical threat to North Korea and would show Pyongyang that there is a security cost to possessing nuclear weapons. Actually, it would allow North Korean leaders to say, “See, America is threatening us with more nuclear weapons, so how can we get rid of ours? In fact, we need more to maintain credible deterrence.” If U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea were needed for military or political reasons, this concern could be overcome, but otherwise, they do more harm than help.
6. Why help South Korea become dependent on nuclear weapons? U.S. nuclear weapons could become a slippery slope to a South Korean nuclear program. When South Korean leaders realize they don’t get to decide if and when U.S. nuclear weapons are used, they may decide they need even more control over their nuclear destiny. The United States has worked for over a decade to demonstrate unequivocally that South Korea and Japan can be secure without the need to have nuclear weapons deployed on their territories. Even with North Korea’s threats and provocations, no one, including North Korea’s leadership, doubts that the United States and its allies would prevail in a war. Redeploying nuclear weapons would erode this argument and reinforce the belief in South Korea that nuclear weapons are necessary for its defense.
7. We’ve got better options. There are more effective ways to reassure the South and deter the North. South Korea is understandably concerned about the threat posed by North Korea and the strength of the U.S. defense commitment. European states during the Cold War had similar concerns, never fully resolved. As with European allies, the United States and South Korea could increase the vitality of the alliance by:
— Enhancing missile defense deployments and pursuing integration with other regional forces, including U.S. naval assets in Japan.
— Jointly developing reconnaissance and conventional strike capabilities to hold mobile North Korean missile launchers at risk.
— Increase scope and diversity of military exercises with South Korean troops, focused on denying North Korea coercive benefits from its nuclear weapons and preparing for “gray-zone” scenarios.
— Consider home-porting new U.S. military assets in South Korea, including the USS Zumwalt stealth destroyer, and broadening cooperation on antisubmarine warfare.
— Consider increasing the U.S. deployment of troops in South Korea.
— Upgrading the level and frequency of alliance political coordination, to include a robust public outreach effort in South Korea.
Rather than let the mythical power of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea grow further, it is urgent that Washington and Seoul, in lock step, put this bad idea to bed. President Moon Jae-in’s assertion that South Korea does not need nuclear weapons is helpful, but is unlikely to end the debate. Instead, political and military leaders from both countries should focus on developing realistic and effective options to ensure mutual security against North Korea’s nuclear coercion.
Photo credit: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
Jon Wolfsthal is a globally recognized expert on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation policy. A nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He is the former deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He has served on site in North Korea, helped negotiate an arms control agreement with Russia, and served as Vice President Joe Biden’s nuclear security advisor from 2009 to 2012.
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