On Monday, a “US official” speaking anonymously to Reuters, said the Pentagon was not thinking of reintroducing nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula.
Earlier in the day, Seoul had suggested Washington was considering the possibility. “The United States and South Korea are continuously and closely having discussions on additional deployment of strategic assets,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said.
By “strategic assets” the unnamed US official said the Defense Department was referring to nuclear-capable bombers. South Korean media had been reporting that Washington and Seoul were discussing the deployment of American B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters, and nuclear submarines to the Korean peninsula.
President George H. W. Bush in 1991 announced the unilateral withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea and other foreign countries, and today there is virtually no apparent support in the Pentagon for redeploying them.
As a matter of actual warfighting, basing nukes in South Korea makes little sense. Van Jackson of the Center for a New American Security points out the US does not need them in Asia because of its conventional military superiority over every other nation. Nukes also tend to exacerbate disputes, make American look aggressive, risk encouraging others to deploy them, eat up resources better devoted elsewhere, and legitimize a class of weaponry that gives weak countries a battlefield equalizer.
Moreover, no one should want to put these destructive instruments anywhere close to where the North Koreans can grab or destroy them.
And with long-range, strategic platforms—like Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines that silently prowl the oceans, B-52s based in nearby Guam, or the stealthy US-based B-2s that can hit a target anywhere on earth—there is no need to actually bring a nuke onto South Korean soil.
Yet, despite everything, South Koreans continue to talk about the US adding nukes to its arsenals on the peninsula.
Why? North Korea’s nuclear weapon program, which is advancing at a steady pace, is unnerving South Koreans, and as a result has eroded confidence in the US’s ability to defend them.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the South Korean government has been caught conducting experiments with fissile material, such as enriching uranium and trying to reprocess plutonium, in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The South has tried to hide its illicit activities from inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog, and without justification refused access to IAEA inspectors. The US thought it had convinced Seoul to give up its program, but South Korean technicians covertly kept up the effort nonetheless.
It is generally believed Seoul can develop a bomb in about a year’s time. South Korean military officials say that they can do that in six months.
And someday they just might. “Suppose you have a dangerous neighbor with a gun,” said Chung Mong-joon, a member of South Korea’s National Assembly, in 2013 at a Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington. “You have to take measures to protect yourself. And being a gun control advocate isn’t going to help you.” As Chung said, “Telling us not to consider any nuclear weapons option is tantamount to telling us to simply surrender.”
The US way of calming down the South Koreans is to fly B-52s over their country at times of stress. A lone B-52 on Sunday made a low pass over Osan Air Base, about 40 miles from Seoul, a message to a North Korea that had detonated a small-yield weapon on Wednesday. The US Air Force also sent a B-52 over South Korea after the North’s previous detonation of an atomic device, in 2013.
A fly-by with a single strategic bomber is better than nothing, but it is no substitute for an effective North Korea policy, which Washington has yet to develop.
The official talking to Reuters said reintroducing nukes might “escalate into an arms race, a very dangerous arms race, in the region,” but the South Koreans know that comment ignores reality. The North Koreans are racing to build nukes as fast as they can, and Washington is stopping Seoul from doing the same. That American policy may not be sustainable for long.