Against the backdrop of the sixth nuclear test, calls for “getting ourselves a bomb” are increasingly heard in the RK. This may be alluding to either the resuscitation of its own nuclear project or, going the much easier route, the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula in order to create a strategic balance of power. We have repeatedly written about these sentiments, as a result of which the lawmakers from the conservative party “Free Korea” actually included the call for nuclear weapons for the country on the party’s political agenda, and the “young colonels” among the South Koreans with dreams of seeing the country having its own bombs are very common.
Let us recall that the US withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from the RK in 1991. The South Koreans attribute this to the fact that at that time, Seoul and Pyongyang had adopted the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, in actual fact, the US simply changed its strategy, putting its stakes on more long-range means of delivery, so that the territory of the DPRK remained completely within its nuclear range.
A new round of hype was provoked by the news that on August 30, in Washington, during a meeting of the defense ministers Seung-yon Mu and James Mattis, the representative of the RK raised the issue of the possibility of the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. This was immediately noted, as the proposal ran counter to the statements made by the top leadership of Seoul, which constantly stressed the importance of the nuclear-free status of the peninsula.
According to a different version thrown out by the media, when the scandal had already started escalating, Song Young-moo merely noted the corresponding opinion of the South Korean opposition, and Mattis responded by expressing his understanding of the position and accepting the need to ensure the country’s security. However, the comments by the representatives of the MoD of the Republic of Korea in the end amounted to the fact that “the ministers discussed various possible options for responding to the growing threat from the DPRK.”
These explanations did not satisfy anyone, and, commenting on the news, the administration of the President of the Republic of Korea stated, that Seoul respects the global non-proliferation regime and will continue building its policies within its framework. The Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Korea also stated that its official position remains unchanged.
On September 3, 2017, Chief National Security Advisor Chong Yi Yong stated that Seoul and Washington would soon discuss the deployment of “the most powerful tactical weapon in the United States” in South Korea. On September 4, speaking at a meeting of the parliamentary defense committee, Defense Minister Song Young-moo stated that this option was well underway, but that this issue needed to be thoroughly worked out.
We shall not forget the visit to the United States of a delegation of the opposition party, Free Korea, which discussed this issue with local politicians, calling for nuclear weapons to be sent to the RK.
On September 10, in an interview with CNN, Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, Republican John McCain, pointed out that the question of the redeployment of United States tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula “must be seriously considered “in connection with the North Korean threats.
On the same day, an unnamed White House spokesperson informed the American television station NBC that the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the south of the Korean peninsula was possible if a corresponding request from Seoul were to be received.
Official Seoul responded immediately with a statement that there would be no such request, even though the 27 members of the Free Korea opposition party had decided to send a letter to Donald Trump with the corresponding request.
On September 13, 2017, while visiting Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, where strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles are housed, the Pentagon chief commented on the need to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to the RK. In his own words, it does not matter where the nuclear weapons are located, as part of the power of deterrence is the very factor of uncertainty. Seoul perceived these words to be an indication of a negative stance on the issue of the possible return to the RK of the US TNW. However, the country’s first person did not say anything. As stated by the American broadcaster NBC, the US president does not rule out such an opportunity. According to the television channel, representatives of the administration of the US president conveyed to China that if Beijing does not agree to an oil embargo against Pyongyang and on tightening its approach to the DPRK, the US would refrain from trying to stop Japan and South Korea in their desire to become nuclear.
On September 14, Moon Jae-in once again addressed the nuclear issue. In an interview with CNN, he stressed that he did not agree with the proposals for the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in the country or the development by South Korea of its own nuclear weapons. As he pointed out, the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to North Korean provocations is unlikely to preserve peace on the Korean peninsula, and may result in an arms race in Northeast Asia. Instead, the Government of the Republic of Korea shall focus on enhancing the country’s military potential.
Representatives of the ruling Democratic Party Toburo also hold a similar position. For instance, in a recent parliamentary debate, in response to the proposals by the conservatives for the deployment of American nuclear weapons in the country, Chairman of the Toboro party, Choo Mi-ae, pointed out that there is no such need and, instead, they need to focus on developing the national missile defense system and strengthening the capabilities of the missile forces.
Leader of the parliamentary faction of the ruling Democratic Party Toburo, Woo Won-shik, is also opposed to the TNW. The deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons would mean a de facto recognition of the North as a nuclear power. Moreover, a nuclear Seoul would lose the moral authority to demand that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear programme. Finally, the deployment of nuclear weapons in the Republic of Korea would intensify friction with China and Russia, which would not be happy about the return of US nuclear weapons closer to their borders, and would accelerate the arms race in North-East Asia, which would further destabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula.
The author considers these arguments to be very reasonable, adding that, in addition to the above, the RK would have to withdraw from the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. However, a survey conducted by the agency Gallup Korea between September 5 and September 7 among 1,004 residents of different regions of the country shows that 60% of the respondents agree that there is a need for the placement of nuclear weapons in the country (against 35% who hold the opposing view, and 5% who refrained from responding. At the same time, 76% of the respondents believe that the sixth nuclear test of the DPRK poses a threat to the RK, 65% indicated that any assistance to the DPRK should be stopped completely, and 33% supported the possibility of a preemptive strike by the United States on the DPRK. Some conservative publications have even determined which types of tactical nuclear weapons are likely to appear in Korea. According to the “TV-Chosun” television channel, the greatest chances lie with the “smart” B-61 nuclear bombs, which can be dropped from fighter-bombers, the W-83 bombs, which can be carried by US B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers and fifth-generation F-22 fighters, and W-80 warheads mounted on an air-to-ground cruise missile.
Alas, these sentiments cannot be overlooked.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.