By Kim Sung-bae, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy
A debate is heating up once again in South Korea over the ideas of a NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangement or the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons. Some have even been trotting out expressions that are all too familiar to us from the Cold War era, such as “balance of terror.” It truly feels like the clock is being turned back on the Korean Peninsula.
At root, the NATO model of nuclear sharing is a Cold War legacy. The US opted for the forward deployment of nuclear weapons to Europe and the Korean Peninsula to respond to the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union.
While it signed a nuclear sharing agreement with its NATO allies, US Forces Korea independently controlled the nuclear weapons in question. It made some sense since the South Korean military did not possess wartime operational control.
In practice, nuclear sharing is not much different from the redeployment of tactical nukes.
It’s an approach where the US military manages nuclear weapons on an ally’s soil, using the ally’s aircraft to carry and drop the weapons if the decision is made to use them. The US president controls the launch codes, and while the ally has the authority to veto the use of nuclear weapons, it has no authority to launch them.
The calls for nuclear sharing and tactical nuclear weapon redeployment are rooted in distrust of the US nuclear umbrella and the idea of extended deterrence.
In point of fact, extended deterrence within the South Korea-US alliance framework is sufficient by itself to avert the use of nuclear weapons. It allows for an immediate response through sea-launched nuclear weapons and bombers scrambled from bases not just from the continental US but also from nearby Guam.
In the end, there’s no difference having nuclear weapons on our soil when we don’t have the authority to launch tactical nukes anyway. If anything, it would just become a priority target for North Korea and other neighbors — subject to a preemptive nuclear strike in the event of a crisis.
Indeed, experts in Europe have been turning their attention these days to the Asian model, where a nuclear umbrella is provided without the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
The NATO-style nuclear sharing approach is riddled with problems, including stability, maintenance cost, and environmental contamination issues associated with tactical nuclear weapon storage. In contrast, South Korea and Japan are seen as maintaining a credible nuclear umbrella without tactical nuclear weapons being deployed there.
Symbolically, the number of tactical nuclear weapons that remain deployed with US allies in Europe comes out to around 100.
The nuclear sharing and tactical nuclear weapon redeployment approaches are unrealistic anyway, in that they depend on the US agreeing to them. The US had as many as 7,300 tactical nukes at one point, but since the post-Cold War era began, they have been steadily reducing that number — leaving only around 130 in the US and 100 deployed with European allies today.
The tactical nukes that the US keeps in its own territory are for emergency use in a what-if scenario in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s not clear why there’s any need for a wasteful debate of policy measures that would not be practicable in the first place.
The biggest issue with these calls for nuclear sharing or redeploying tactical nuclear weapons is that this would essentially recognize North Korea as a nuclear power.
Redeploying tactical nukes would be in direct violation of the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We would forfeit our ability to demand North Korea’s denuclearization — in effect, giving up on our calls for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
It’s both shocking and baffling that the alternative these people would choose after washing their hands of denuclearizing the peninsula would be a “balance of terror.”
It’s an expression that came out of the Cold War era, referring to the idea of deterring nuclear war through the fear that everyone would end up destroyed if one came to pass. But for that to work, we would need the kind of nuclear firepower that would enable us to launch a fatal strike even after being hit with a preemptive nuclear strike — what they refer to as “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) between adversaries.
That sort of concept is not going to come out of tactical nuclear weapons alone; it would require strategic nuclear weapons. Ultimately, establishing a “balance of terror” on the peninsula would necessitate an unchecked nuclear arms race.
Nuclear sharing and the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons are not matters to be approached along partisan or political lines. Their potential impact on our security environment is simply too great.
It could end up a situation where the Korean Peninsula security dilemma goes on forever, leaving the people of South Korea to live under the constant fear of nuclear war. Is that the future we want?
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