In the wake of North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013, voices emerged again in Seoul calling for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula and even demanding that South Korea arm itself with nuclear weapons. Fortunately, the governments of both countries have dismissed such possibilities, although this has not dampened the calls from those who argue in favor of the nuclear card. And they can turn to the opinion polls to backup their calls. For example, a recent public opinion survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul reveals the degree of support among South Koreans for nuclear weapons. Although the survey was taken shortly after the third nuclear test and showed 66.5% in support of a domestic nuclear weapons program, this number has remained unchanged since September 2012.
Some may wish to interpret this support for nuclear weapons as reflecting concerns among the people in South Korea about the commitment of the United States to defend against North Korea. They may believe that South Koreans are questioning the resolve of the United States and point to the budgetary issues that Washington faces, particularly in regard to sequestering. Others have even gone as far as to suggest that if North Korea can launch nuclear weapons against the United States, the nuclear umbrella will be broken.
Given this situation, the Obama administration has reacted in two main ways to reassure South Korea. One has been to make visible demonstrations of the extended nuclear deterrence and the second has been to express clearly that it will defend South Korea regardless of budgetary restraints. Whether this will be enough to reduce calls in South Korea for nuclear weapons is hard to say. Does this support for nuclear weapons reflect am emerging divide between reassurance and deterrence on the Korean Peninsula?
It is important to consider the definitions of deterrence and reassurance which Michael Howard provides in his article on how this issue affected Western Europe during the Cold War. “The object of deterrence is to persuade an adversary that the costs of seeking a military solution to his political problems will far outweigh the benefits. The object of reassurance is to persuade one’s own people, and those of one’s allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs.” Given this definition, one may begin to understand why some believe that U.S. extended deterrence is not working and hence the questions of commitment. North Korea has not been deterred from carrying out nuclear tests or from carrying out provocations. Following this logic, some may believe that either the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula or even South Korea’s own pursuit of nuclear weapons would begin to make North Korea reconsider the costs of its actions. This has been the argument of many conservative critics in South Korea.
Such actions though would not be possible in the current international environment and would be detrimental to the notion of reassurance that the nuclear option will outweigh the costs. The pursuit of nuclear weapons in South Korea would incur serious costs, such as weakening of its alliance with the United States. The redeployment of nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula would damage relations with China and potentially invoke counteractions by Beijing. Both would play into North Korean fears that the United States is planning a nuclear war against it. Besides, there are no tactical nuclear weapons that can be realistically deployed. Nor is there any need for them given the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Both these facts were recognized by the Obama administration which in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review downplayed the use of tactical nuclear weapons believing that its strategic nuclear arsenal and conventional forces are sufficient.
It would be more accurate to suggest that public support for nuclear weapons likely reflects a sense of frustration with North Korea. Again looking at the Asan public opinion survey on support for nuclear weapons, it shows that a more noticeable change came between 2010 and 2011 when those in favor jumped from 56% to 63%. This would seem to suggest that North Korea’s provocations in 2010 had some impact on the support for nuclear weapons in South Korea. Furthermore, these numbers should be understood within the context of other domestic issues and priorities. Consider that in the same Asan public opinion survey, inter-Korea relations are one of the least important issues on the national agenda. This would make it difficult to translate this support into a genuine national desire for nuclear weapons. People are more concerned with job creation and economic democratization than investing national wealth into the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
It has to also be questioned whether those who advocate the nuclear option understand the dynamics involved. There does exist a misunderstanding of extended deterrence in terms of the need for tactical nuclear weapons to be deployed to the Korean Peninsula. Jeffrey Lewis pointed out similar misunderstandings when he dissected a Joongang Daily article that claimed U.S. nuclear weapons would be kept behind in South Korea after Key Resolve/Foal Eagle. The article mistakenly believed that U.S. warships are armed with nuclear weapons and will be operating in South Korean waters to deter North Korea. Apart from the fact that the U.S. Navy just recently retired from service its tactical nuclear weapons, the article reflects the belief that nuclear weapons must be kept close to South Korea in order to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. In any potential war scenario, nuclear weapons do not need to be kept on or close to the Korean Peninsula. The only reason that tactical nuclear weapons were kept in South Korea during the Cold War was to stop a massive land invasion from North Korea. But as ROK-U.S. conventional capabilities are sufficient and overwhelming enough to halt a conventional attack, the need for tactical nuclear weapons to be kept in South Korea has diminished.
Still, Washington felt the need to publically demonstrate its extended deterrence capability in an effort to quell any doubts. This came in the form of U.S. Air Force B-52H and B-2A bombers, which participated in mock bomb-runs over the Korean Peninsula as part of the recent Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises. Although this was not the first time that such aircrafts were involved in U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, the United States did make a particular point of showcasing their participation. This was widely seen as sending a message to North Korea, but it was arguably more directed at South Korea as a gesture of reassurance. Will such public displays of force push back the calls for nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula? Not so much. As long as the nuclear question remains unresolved, the voices in favor of nuclear weapons for South Korea will continue to sound. It is important to keep in mind the context in which these voices sound.