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Reintroducing Nukes to South Korea

By William Beecher

In face of the almost daily escalation of bellicose rhetoric from North Korea, the United States might consider reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea as a means both of taming the North and calming the South. An ancillary affect might also be to strengthen rather than weaken nuclear non-proliferation in the region.

Most analysts tend to dismiss the threatening war chants of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s impetuous new 28-year-old dictator, as designed to increase his stature as a tough leader with his military establishment, and to entice the United States and others to provide new quantities of food and fuel in order to placate Pyongyang, just as his father and grandfather did repeatedly before him.

While that analysis might well be spot on, there’s always the danger of a sudden miscalculation that could trigger another bloody chapter in the Korean War. Chung Mong-joon, a leading member of the South Korean ruling party and a former presidential candidate, declared recently, “Nuclear deterrence can be the only answer. We have to have nuclear capability.”

And a public opinion poll only last month found that 66 percent of South Koreans said they favor developing nuclear weapons.

Now the government of South Korea, long a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, insists it wants no such weapons program.  However, it is currently renegotiating its 1972 nuclear cooperation pact with the United States. It is strenuously arguing for permission to acquire both uranium enrichment technology and spent fuel reprocessing technology from the United States for its 22 nuclear power reactors.

It contends it wants the enrichment capability so it won’t be wholly reliant on outside suppliers for reactor fuel. And it says it wants reprocessing capability to deal with the growing pile of nuclear reactor waste which it says presents an environmental problem.

Lest anyone raise the point that enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons, and that reprocessing of spent fuel produces weapons-grade plutonium, South Korean negotiators say they would be happy to allow intensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But there has been a long history in South Korea of secretly pursuing a nuclear option. The United States has repeatedly used its leverage to tamp down such efforts. The United States first introduced tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea in 1958 when, because of severe budgetary pressure after the Korean War, it was decided to reduce our conventional force levels there from about 300,000 at the time of the armistice to 50,000. The nukes were thought to represent an equalizer to deter an attack from North Korea.

But in 1991, as part of a global initiative, President George H. Bush withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from most overseas deployments. It was hoped this would also strengthen the objective of keeping the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.

Over the years, a number of agreements were reached with North Korea to severely restrain its nuclear efforts, focusing on its plutonium extraction facility at Yongbyon, which Kim now threatens to reopen. Pyongyang long denied it had a separate uranium enrichment program. But it’s now apparent that it was pursuing both weapons efforts in parallel. 

If South Korea were to get access to either uranium enrichment technology or plutonium-producing spent fuel reprocessing technology, there would likely be pressure from influential leaders in both Japan and Taiwan to bring whatever nuclear weapons programs might be in the closet out into the open. For Japan is worried about both North Korea and China, and Taiwan is worried about a Chinese threat.

The United States has long argued that our nuclear umbrella is sufficient guarantee of the security of our friends and allies against a nuclear threat. If the United States now reintroduced a small number of tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea, it would strengthen our argument about extended deterrence, and undermine the case for the South leaving the non-proliferation treaty. At the same time, it would undermine the sub-rosa pro-nuclear movements in Japan and Taiwan.

As for North Korea, at that juncture, to threaten to rain nuclear weapons onto South Korean cities would be seen as an empty, self-defeating threat.

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William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He also served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. His blog can be accessed here.

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