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Send the Nukes Back to South Korea
At the stroke of a pen, President Obama could reassure a key ally and put Pyongyang back in its box. Here’s how.
Months of tensions on the Korean peninsula have emerged at an awkward time for the United States: In the aftermath of draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with a budget deficit still at a near-record high, there is little appetite in Washington for more military commitments. How should the United States reconcile its global fatigue, an empty treasury, and a history of failed diplomacy with North Korea with the requirements to defend its South Korean ally and itself?
The reinstallation of nuclear weapons into South Korea may be the answer. It would enhance deterrence, reassure the South Korean people and, in the long run, possibly lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Largely forgotten today, the United States housed 11 types of nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 to 1991. Introduced by the Eisenhower administration, they provided an economical substitute for the large number of boots on the ground that departed with the end of the Korean War in 1953. The policy meshed with the Pentagon’s global nuclear deterrent directed at the Soviet Union and China from East Asia.
After the Cold War ended, the George H.W. Bush administration removed the arsenal as part of a global nuclear drawdown. In February 1992, North and South Korea signed a joint declaration stating that the peninsula would be permanently denuclearized. But even before the ink was dry, Pyongyang cheated, refusing Seoul’s request to inspect suspect sites.
In the two decades that followed, North Korea continued to drop out of agreements aimed at curtailing its nuclear weapons program: the nuclear nonproliferation treaty; the 1994 Agreed Framework, which would have replaced its nuclear reactors with the more difficult to weaponize light-water reactors; the accord after the 2007 Six Party Talks, in which Pyongyang promised to shut down its main nuclear reactor; and the 2012 understanding with Washington to suspend nuclear and long-range missile testing. Despite this bleak history, Washington seems to believe it can talk, sanction, induce, coax or threaten the North to give up its nuclear program. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it during his mid-April Asia trip, "North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power."
But unless Washington wishes to initiate military action, it may have no choice. The fact remains that North Korea has nukes. It conducted its third nuclear-weapons test in February, and in April it vowed to restart its Yongbyon plutonium reactor and uranium enrichment plant. It’s a reality that’s worth repeating: North Korea will not give up the bomb.
Instead of pretending that it can force Pyongyang to denuclearize, Washington should focus on containing the threat posed by North Korea. U.S. policymakers intended the March B-2 and B-52 bomber flyovers to demonstrate the durability of the nuclear umbrella, as both aircrafts are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. However, such sporadic displays of force will not convince North Korea that Washington will rebuff possible attempts at nuclear intimidation of the South in the future. But nuclear weapons on South Korean soil might.
A February poll by the Asan Institute, a South Korean think tank, said that 66 percent of South Korean respondents support the development of a nuclear-weapons program. While it could take a few years for the South to generate its own bomb, all the United States would need is a presidential order. At the stroke of a pen, Obama would enhance deterrence and reassure the South Korean people. Although China would protest, the United States could assuage it by presenting the deployment as a way of lessoning the probability that South Korean and Japanese develop their own nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang would likely be furious. But what else could it threaten that it hasn’t already threatened over the last two months? And even if Pyongyang wanted to produce more nuclear weapons in response, it appears to lack the capability to do so.
Ideally, U.S. nukes in South Korea would eventually provide the leverage for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, mirroring the European experience near the end of the Cold War. In 1983, after Moscow installed a new generation of intermediate-range missiles in the Soviet Union, Washington responded with nuclear-tipped Pershing II rockets and ground-launched cruise missiles in West Germany. The result provided the United States with the clout to negotiate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated that class of missiles for both superpowers.
U.S. deployment on the Korean Peninsula could have a similar effect. But only if Washington accepts that its current approach has failed.