Tactical Nuclear Weapons in South Korea: A Better Bargaining Chip

By Jarek Buss
Contributing Writer
4 April 2018

Current tensions with North Korea have plenty of similarities with the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are not limited to a comparison of the dangers - the way out in 1962 has lessons for today. While Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to pull nuclear weapons out of Cuba in return for the removal of American Jupiter missiles from Turkey, the United States currently has little to offer North Korea in return for denuclearization. That must change, especially as the Trump administration moves toward possible talks. The United States should publicly deploy tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea to increase deterrence and create a bargaining chip valuable enough to extract North Korean concessions.

Current U.S. policy is a “maximum pressure” campaign rallying states around the world to reduce economic and diplomatic ties to North Korea and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolutions. Sanctions are intended to thwart the Kim regime’s “byungjin” policy of simultaneously becoming a nuclear power and achieving economic prosperity, eventually forcing it to trade its weapons for economic opportunity. This strategy has merit, but it is slow. Sanctions take time to be felt, but North Korea’s weapons program continues apace. What’s more, North Korea has decades of experience evading sanctions. And even if sanctions eventually prove crippling, Iran’s continued difficulties post-JCPOA could diminish the Kim regime’s incentives to give up its nukes for a promise of relief. The maximum pressure campaign is necessary but not sufficient.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis was ultimately ended in a nukes for nukes deal.

The United States needs additional leverage to convince the DPRK to begin walking back from its nuclear weapons program. To this effect, the United States should deploy 30-40 tactical nuclear weapons (B61 gravity bombs) to the ROK. Deployment can occur within months, sending a strong, immediate signal of U.S. resolve to counter the North Korean threat. This policy will both give the United States something to offer in return for North Korean arms limitation and contribute to long-term deterrence of the North.

Deployment of tactical nuclear weapons will encourage a paradigm shift from “nukes for prosperity” to “nukes for nukes.” Reductions in the North’s nuclear weapons can be matched by reductions in the South’s. The carrot of economic aid has failed to buy off the North Korean weapons program for two decades and creates a perverse incentive for the DPRK to restart its program each time it wants concessions. Arms control agreements have only ever succeeded on terms of reciprocity; we should not expect North Korea to be different.

Yet even if the North never comes to the negotiating table, tactical nuclear deployment will add to deterrence, improving the security of South Korea and our troops. A shared command and control system—perhaps similar to NATO—will eliminate the “Seoul for Los Angeles” question. With the South currently entirely reliant on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, it is plausible to imagine a scenario where the North engages in nuclear blackmail of the South, or even a first strike, on the assumption that the United States will refrain from a nuclear response for fear of retaliation against the U.S. homeland. If South Korea has a finger on the button, that question is moot and any perceived nuclear advantage in the North will evaporate.

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An inert B61 bomb undergoes F-16 flight testing

The greatest challenge for this policy will be to secure support from the Moon administration, yet the policy proposition has had broad public support. On the one hand, deployment will defuse pressure for a South Korean indigenous program. On the other, a sharing mechanism that gives the ROK veto power on the weapons’ use will actually increase the ROK's say on nuclear matters as compared to now. In the end, this is a move to improve the security of South Koreans.

Deployment of tactical nukes to the ROK will be characterized by some as an escalation, and certainly denounced by North Korea and China. Some will say that it will derail the nascent talks. But talks already risk being a ploy to buy the DPRK time to consolidate its weapons gains; the U.S. needs to show that it is serious about action towards denuclearization, not lip service. Deployment will keep the pressure up to produce results, and gives us arms we can give up in an arms control agreement. DPRK retaliation, if any, will be what it has always been—posturing and provocative bluster.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully through a nukes-for-nukes deal. When the United States optimistically but unilaterally withdrew its nuclear weapons from South Korea after the end of the Cold War, we gave up our greatest leverage over the North’s nuclear program. To make a similar deal today, we need that advantage back.

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Jarek Buss is a Pickering Graduate Fellow at the George Washington University studying East Asian security.

Picture licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

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