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THE INVESTOR

Politics & North Korea

US nukes in S. Korea, mere talk or feasible plan?

  • PUBLISHED :September 11, 2017 - 17:00
  • UPDATED :September 11, 2017 - 17:00
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[THE INVESTOR] Despite repeated rebuttals from the Blue House, talk of putting US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea continues to grow, with signs of Washington warming to the idea.  

But local experts are still cautious, questioning whether the US would have the real intention to redeploy tactical nukes on the Korean Peninsula, risking sparking military tensions in Northeast Asia and a regional nuclear arms race. 


President Moon Jae-in (right) converses with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on pending issues, including the North Korean nuclear weapons program, at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Sept. 11.


Over the past few days, South Korea has been roiled by a series of remarks from Washington’s policymakers that they might consider redeploying its tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea as a deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile attack. 

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that redeploying US nukes in South Korea “ought to be seriously considered” in response to the question about his stance on Seoul’s call for the measure.

“If you allow (North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un) to have nuclear weapons and South Korea, Japan and others who are under our “nuclear umbrella,” don‘t, I think that’s out of balance,” McCain said … In other words make sure that Kim Jong-un knows that if he acts in an aggressive fashion, the price will be extinction.”

The senator asserted that the measure should go along with the efforts to enhance the allies’ missile defense capability against North Korea and increase pressure toward China, criticizing Beijing for failing to put the brakes on Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition. 

His comment came after the NBC report that the Trump administration is “not ruling out” redeploying the nukes here should Seoul request them. The broadcaster said they had interviewed nearly a dozen administration and defense officials who are aware of the strategy. 

The interviewed officials, however, added that the measure is widely viewed as a “non-starter” that would break with nearly three decades of US policy of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Washington withdrew its tactical nukes in 1991 and South Korea was declared nuclear-free a year later. 

Although those remarks might have reflected Washington’s embracive stance toward South Korea’s nuclear armament, the US is still more likely to pursue it as diplomatic leverage against China to rein in North Korea than actually fielding the nukes on the frontline, analysts here said. 

“If there were really such talks coming from the US, it would be simply served as options to put more pressure on China and North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul‘s Dongguk University. 

The US military stationed in South Korea has also publicly opposed the idea of putting back their nukes. Last week, Gen. Thomas W. Bergeson, deputy commander of USFK, said he thinks the US does not support the measure and that Washington’s nuclear umbrella is “sufficient” in deterring the North. 

Some analysts questioned the effectiveness of US tactical nukes against North Korea, saying that Washington’s extended deterrence, such as its nuclear umbrella and deployment of strategic assets, is sufficient in deterring the nuclear-armed North Korea. 

Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute, said that US strategic assets deployed or to be deployed in South Korea, such as tomahawk cruise missile, is strong enough to strike a “balance of terror” with the North. 

“Tomahawk cruise missile, which the US tries to sell to South Korea and Japan, is equivalent to 200 kilotons of tactical nuclear weapon,” said Kim. “US strategic assets bought to South Korea is enough to maintain the balance of terror between the two Koreas.” 

Meanwhile, South Korea’s main opposition Liberty Korea Party is campaigning for US nukes to be dispatched here, sending its delegation to Washington and launching an online petition. The conservative party asserted that the measure is the only way to prevent nuclear attack from the North. 

“Nuclear armament is crucial to protecting our family and country,” the party’s chairman Rep. Hong Jun-pyo said during a meeting with his fellow lawmakers. “We can possess nuclear weapons much faster than North Korea did.” 

By Yeo Jun-suk/The Korea Herald (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)
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