A top South Korean official just floated the idea of having Washington return nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula — a provocative idea at a dangerous time.
There are just two problems: First, the request came hours after North Korea tested its most powerful bomb to date on September 3. The explosive was around seven times stronger than the one America dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and experts believe it can level parts of a city. And second, it could worsen relations with China while undermining America’s goal of convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
On Monday, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo noted he talked to US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about placing American nuclear weapons in the country for the first time in over 25 years. He also said South Korea wants “strategic assets” like US aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and B-52 bombers to deploy to the peninsula more frequently, though not to be permanently housed there. As for the nuclear weapons, a spokesperson for President Moon Jae-in said his government doesn’t want those bombs permanently in the country. So this is currently more of a proposal than a policy announcement.
But the idea of sending American nuclear weapons to South Korea is now out there — and it’s not so farfetched. The US had around 100 nuclear weapons in the country until September 27, 1991, when President George H.W. Bush announced he wanted to take them out. It was part of his initiative to remove and destroy all US nuclear weapons deployed in important regions, including Northeast Asia.
The US deployed nuclear weapons to South Korea in the 1950s. Back then, America didn’t have long-range and precise missiles to hit targets with nuclear weapons from far away. So it made sense to have them already placed on the peninsula to strike regional targets quickly.
But that led to a few complications. “They were more trouble than they were worth,” Zachary Keck, an Asia security expert at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said in an interview. “Forward deploying the missiles was expensive and required special personnel. The missiles needed to be heavily guarded from theft. And they were vulnerable to attack or sabotage by North Korea.”
Now the US has the ability to strike North Korea from much further away, either with its intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, or bomber planes. Putting nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, though, cuts down the time it would take to bomb North Korea — something the administration may think is worth doing.
“The US military would wipe out North Korea in a nuclear conflict, if it wanted to, in 20 minutes or so,” Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at the Center for the National Interest, said in an interview, citing the time it would take US intercontinental ballistic missiles to strike the North. “With US nuclear forces in South Korea we could do it in one to three minutes. It’s just a degree of how fast you want to destroy North Korea, and adds very little to our force posture or capabilities.”
But there’s a broader question about the wisdom of such a move. The Trump administration’s top goal is for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. If the White House sends more nukes to the region, it undermines that initiative. The move would also anger China, which wouldn’t want those weapons near it.
So it doesn’t look like it’s to America’s benefit to deploy nuclear weapons to the country, even if some South Korean officials may continue to ask for them. But Trump bluntly said he didn’t think Moon is tough enough to push back on North Korea, claiming he was actually appeasing Pyongyang. That view doesn’t seem to fit with Moon’s drive to arm South Korea with more weapons.
South Korea is preparing to defend itself
“We cannot rely only on our ally for our security,” Moon said in a nationally televised speech on August 15. “When it comes to matters related to the Korean Peninsula, our country has to take the initiative in resolving them.”
And he’s made moves to do just that. On Monday, Moon told Trump that South Korea wants to build a nuclear submarine. Seoul also wants to increase the payload on its missiles so it can do more damage, and it will also temporarily deploy four THAAD missile-defense systems that it bought from the US, Reuters reports.
And this morning, it looks like Trump agreed to sell more military equipment to South Korea (and Japan) to defend itself.
I am allowing Japan & South Korea to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2017
That would be in keeping with Trump’s earlier, and often deeply controversial, views. In March 2016, he told the New York Times he wanted South Korea to build its own nuclear weapons so it didn’t have to rely so much on the United States. He also stated in April 2017 that he wanted Seoul to pay $1 billion for the THAAD missile defense system, a comment National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster later had to walk back.
Instead of sending nuclear weapons, then, Trump may prefer to continue arming South Korea. And it looks like South Korea has no problem with that approach — for now.