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US Could Deploy 180 Nuclear Weapons In South Korea To Check Pyongyang & Assure Seoul: Analysis

With North Korea getting further encouraged to use its nuclear weapons threat because of the increasing support from China and Russia to its supreme leader Kim Jong-un, South Korea (Republic of Korea) needs clarity on “the US Nuclear Umbrella.” 

The above is the recommendation of the prestigious RAND Corporation of the United States and South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, two leading think tanks worldwide.

Both have just released a joint study titled “Options for Strengthening ROK Nuclear Assurance,” which describes and evaluates options that the ROK and the United States could take to provide a sense of security to the South Koreans, failing which Seoul would come under increasing domestic pressure to develop its nuclear weapons.

Two years ago, the EurAsian Times published how South Koreans’ moods depend on North Korea’s behavior. Given North Korea’s regular missile tests and rigidity on nuclear bombs, various opinion polls that have been conducted in recent years do reflect a discernible desire of the South Koreans to exercise their atomic weapon option.

According to Professor Chung-in Moon, formerly a National Security and Foreign Affairs Advisor to the then South Korean President Moon Jae-in, there are two schools of thought that seek nuclear armaments in his country. 

One school of thought – “the teleological school” – seeks nuclear armament as a matter of promoting ‘nuclear sovereignty,’ based on the logic of ‘nuclear for nuclear.’

The other school of thought – “instrumentalist,” which seems to have the upper hand – pushes for a conditional, independent nuclear armament based on enhancing the credibility of the US’ nuclear-extended deterrence. They favor redeployment of American tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear sharing between South Korea and the United States.

It may be noted that the United States and South Korea do have a security alliance under which US troops are present in the country, and the latter, like Japan, is under a US “nuclear umbrella.” In fact, until 1991, American nuclear weapons – 951 tactical nuclear heads, to be precise – were stationed in the peninsula.

The US decision to withdraw nuclear warheads from South Korea was based on the rationale that since North Korea then did not have nuclear weapons and was a party to NPT, it would be unjustifiable for Washington to use tactical nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country.

But since the situation has drastically changed following North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT in 1994 and going nuclear, South Korean conservatives would like the re-transfer of American tactical nuclear weapons, failing which the indigenous atomic capability must be revived.

The point of this school is that without nuclear weapons, South Korea will become a slave of a nuclear North Korea. The former should have nuclear weapons to create a balance of power on the Korean peninsula and in the region. By doing so, South Korea will also become a credible middle power with nuclear weapons that can prevent the outbreak of war.

South Korea’s nuclear capability was never in question since the days of late President Park Chung-hee, when the then Nixon Administration was thinking of reducing the US presence on the peninsula as per its Guam doctrine (1969) that said that henceforward, the US would like to provide more economic and security assistance to the allies than keeping American troops in them.

In fact, in 2004, Seoul revealed to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had attempted to enrich uranium as late as 2000. It conducted chemical uranium enrichment from 1979 to 1981, separated small quantities of plutonium in 1982, experimented with uranium enrichment in 2000, and manufactured depleted uranium munitions from 1983 to 1987.

Professor Moon has pointed out how in 2016, Charles Ferguson, then president of the Federation of American Scientists, estimated that South Korea had up to 4330 bombs’ worth of plutonium at the Wolsong site, assuming a conservative estimate of about 6 kg plutonium for a first-generation fission device.

He also quoted Suh Kune-yul, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University, asserting that “South Korea has enough plutonium to produce 5,000 nuclear warheads of 100 kilotons. If we (South Korea) decide to stand on our own feet and put our resources together, we can build nuclear weapons in six months with the investment of one billion dollars.”

Defense Treaty

If South Korea has not gone nuclear, it is mainly because of its relationship with the United States. The United States has a defense treaty with South Korea (Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea, 1953).

Under this treaty, the US maintains about 30,000 US military personnel based in the ROK ( more than in any foreign country other than Germany and Japan) and prepares those personnel to defend the ROK in response to any significant North Korean attack.

Equally important is the regular US confirmation that South Korea is under the US nuclear umbrella so that Seoul does not need its atomic weapons. The 2009 US-ROK joint vision says this, something the 2022 security consultative meeting between the US Secretary of Defense and the ROK Minister of Defense has reiterated.

The US ambassador to Seoul, Philip Goldberg, has also reportedly claimed that the U.S. commitment to extended nuclear deterrence was firm and that the U.S. commitment should not be doubted.

It may be noted here that nuclear deterrence (that decisively prevents the adversary from utilizing or employing nuclear weapons) is of two types, one direct and the other extended.

Direct deterrence refers to a country’s efforts to defend itself. Extended deterrence is a commitment to deter and, if necessary, to respond across the spectrum of potential nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios in defense of allies and partners. This commitment is often described as providing a “nuclear umbrella.”

Extended deterrence also serves as a nonproliferation tool by obviating the need for allies and partners to develop or acquire and field their nuclear arsenals. Thus, when we hear the concept of the US nuclear umbrella, it implies the US assurance to its allies that they need not worry about any threat of atomic weapons to them as Washington will effectively deal with that threat.  

In short, when it comes to South Korea, the US assurances suggest that any nuclear development on the part of South Korea is unnecessary and undesirable.

North Korean Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile
North Korean Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile

But if some South Koreans still want a nuclear option with their independent nuclear force, then that is due to their concerns over “the level of strategic ambiguity of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.” They, according to the Rand-Asan study, are doubting the existing U.S. commitment and seeking more concrete assurance as “the United States has not even formally defined the nuclear umbrella.”

Accordingly, the report identifies the options available to both South Korea and the United States to adjust their policies and measures to enhance the strategic clarity of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

“Doing so should reassure the ROK that the North Korean nuclear weapon threat can be managed without the ROK having to field its nuclear weapons at potentially serious costs to the ROK, the United States, and the nonproliferation regime”, the report says.

The report points out essential differences between nuclear deterrence and nuclear assurance. It finds merits in the formulation of Denis Healey, Britain’s Defence Minister in the late 1960s, known as “The Healey Theorem,” to underscore the difficulty of the assurance aspect of extended deterrence. The Theorem is, “It takes only five percent credibility of American retaliation to deter the Russians, but ninety-five percent credibility to reassure the Europeans.”

The report applies this theorem to the South Korean scenario by saying that the US nuclear umbrella has required ROK blind trust in a US commitment that lacks a clear definition of its content or scope.

It says that South Koreans are not sufficiently reassured as “the United States does not appear to be taking action to prevent North Korea from enhancing the qualitative and quantitative aspects of its nuclear weapon threat, including its delivery means,” “the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a major shock in the ROK,” “ North Korean military threats against the ROK and United States are becoming increasingly aggressive,” and “Russia and China refuse to allow the United Nations (UN) Security Council to act against the North Korean missile tests or nuclear weapon production.”

The report’s recommendations, therefore, are measures that will make South Koreans perceive the US nuclear umbrella getting strengthened to be more visible and assuring. The need of the hour is for the United States “to pursue strategic clarity akin to the efforts taken by the United States in NATO in the 1960s”.

Among the suggested measures by the Rand-Asan report, the most remarkable seems to be the one that makes the US commit about 180 nuclear weapons to support South Korean security. 

“The ROK and the United States could use an approach with a four-step, sequential process to establish a degree of parity with the North Korean nuclear weapon threat and seek a North Korean nuclear weapon production freeze,” it says.

The “four steps” are:

  • Modernize or build new US tactical nuclear weapon storage in the ROK.

  • Dedicate all or part of the nuclear weapons on a U.S. ballistic missile submarine operating in the Pacific to targeting North Korea.

  • Modernize approximately 100 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons—which the United States otherwise plans to dismantle—at ROK expense. These weapons could then be stored in the United States but would be committed to supporting the ROK and rapidly deployable to the ROK.

  • Deploy a limited number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the ROK to be stored in the prepared nuclear weapon storage facilities.

If implemented, for these 180 nuclear weapons to South Korean security, “perhaps eight to 12 B61 nuclear bombs could be deployed in the ROK for both symbolic and operational purposes”, the report says. 

However, the report does admit that the above suggestion is most challenging to implement, though it is likely to have “the greatest impact on ROK nuclear assurance” and “avoid the appearance that the ROK needs to produce its nuclear weapons.”

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com
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