Among President-elect Donald Trump’s criticisms of the Obama Administration, he gets at least one thing right: the Obama Administration’s “Strategic Patience” policy has failed to prevent North Korea’s nuclear armament.
Despite ongoing sanctions, North Korea has substantially developed its nuclear attack capability. North Korea has even explicitly declared its intent to wage nuclear war against South Korea and the United States. In this situation, an increasing number of South Koreans are demanding their own nuclear deterrent, despite the existing U.S. commitment to extended nuclear deterrence. If South Korea decides to go nuclear, it will be another U.S. policy failure, this time in terms of nonproliferation.
The best response for the Trump Administration in this situation would be to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to U.S. forces stationed in South Korea. At the same time, the United States should declare that it will withdraw those weapons as soon as North Korea discards its nuclear capability.
This policy will deter North Korea. North Korea will surely frame the redeployment as a threat of an impending American nuclear attack. However it would not launch a preemptive strike without nuclear superiority in the Korean Peninsula, a situation redeployed tactical nuclear weapons would prevent. As it begins to fear U.S. nuclear retaliation from close range, North Korea would realize that its own nuclear weapons or would-be weapons are unusable. Uncertain as to what kinds of provocations might cause American use of those weapons, North Korea would refrain from conventional provocations against South Korea as well.
This policy will also alleviate South Koreans’ security concerns and pacify increasing demands for their own nuclear deterrent. South Koreans fear that North Korea might launch an attack against them, and they are concerned that the United States would be reluctant to counter-attack, fearing North Korea’s nuclear retaliation. North Korea’s repeated test-launches of inter-continental missiles give rise to this fear. But with U.S. nuclear weapons redeployed on their soil, South Koreans will be reassured of the unshakable American commitment to South Korea’s national security and choose not to develop nuclear weapons.
This policy will even be cost-effective. The United States would redeploy some of its already existing nuclear weapons without the additional cost of building new ones. Further, the United States could ask South Korea to share the burden. Under such a plan, the total U.S. cost to maintain its nuclear arsenal could actually decrease by shifting some of the costs of housing and maintaining the weapons to South Korea. Meanwhile, the United States could also reduce the cost of conventional forces stationed in South Korea by specializing in nuclear forces.
Some critics may argue that China and Russia would strongly protest this policy. This is true, but by redeploying short-range tactical nuclear weapons, covering only the Korean Peninsula, the United States can refute China and Russia’s claims that these weapons threaten their security. And by declaring that the United States will withdraw its weapons as soon as North Korea abandons its nuclear ambitions, the policy induces China and Russia to push North Korea harder to abandon its nuclear program. Their displeasure at the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in their hemisphere far outweigh any benefits they might reap from a nuclear North Korea.
Another criticism may be that this policy will make the denuclearization of North Korea more difficult. North Korea will surely use the U.S. redeployment as a pretext for developing and testing more of its own nuclear weapons. But it is risky for the United States and South Korea to hope for North Korea’s self-denuclearization without adequate means to deter its increasing nuclear attack capability. Given that the strategies undertaken until now have been unsuccessful in deterring the nuclear armament of North Korea, a new policy direction is clearly needed to resolve the current asymmetric insecurity of South Korea. This policy aims first to protect the U.S. ally at risk. The United States should continue imposing sanctions on North Korea until North Korea decides to give up its nuclear weapons, but take additional steps in the meantime to protect its endangered ally.
The Trump Administration should adopt the policy of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. It does not guarantee the denuclearization of North Korea, but it will contribute to the deterrence of North Korea’s nuclear threat. With this policy, South Koreans will neither worry about their insecurity nor seek their own nuclear deterrent. By extension, this policy will also convince other allies of U.S. credibility for their security and reassure the world of the U.S. commitment to the global nonproliferation.
Jonghyuk Park is a student in the Elliott School’s Master of Security Policies Program Program specializing in intelligence and North Korea. He received his Bachelors in Political Science from Korea University.