In its draft of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S. House of Representatives “encourages steps” to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific.
There is a case to be made for taking such a step. But the North Korean nuclear program (the implied reason for bringing tac nukes back to East Asia) is far more complex than to be alleviated through nuclear coercion. If anything the reintroduction of a U.S. nuclear arsenal in East Asia would lead to a far more aggressive North Korean regime and would most likely drive China to undertake a far more assertive approach in the region.
The House bill aside, some East Asia security experts have begun to advocate for a U.S. nuclear presence in the region. For example, Seongwhun Cheon, a senior research fellow with the Korea Institute for National Unification, recently argued that a small U.S. arsenal in South Korea would, “provide a trump card that would enable a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear problem. Most of all, it would become a game changer in the geopolitical and strategic dynamics surrounding the nuclear crisis. This would be similar to the “dual-track strategy” used by the administration of US President Ronald Reagan in Western Europe in the early 1980s.”
Cheon goes on to cite other potential security benefits, including a diminished North Korean ability to threaten South Korea, a reduced incentive within South Korea to pursue its own domestic nuclear program and encouraging China to confront the North Korean nuclear issue or accept U.S nukes close to its border.
Despite these perceived benefits, the case for redploying tactical nuclear weapons to East Asia is seriously flawed. First, North Korea’s nuclear program is ostensibly a response to the U.S., but largely derived from intensified feelings of pride and nationalism. By directly threatening North Korean security with nuclear weapons the U.S. would reinforce the strategic justification and simultaneously act as an affront to North Korean nationalism.
Accordingly the idea that nuclear weapons would somehow cause the DPRK to reevaluate its present stance is naive. If anything it would cause the North to lash out and become ever more defiant. This could include skirmishes within the DMZ, incidents such as the torpedoing of the Cheonan and an array of other actions all aimed at displaying the North as undeterred by the U.S.
Secondly such a move by the U.S. would directly threaten China’s interest in the region. This would come at a particularly sensitive time, when China is apparently exerting its influence with North Korea to prevent a third nuclear test.
Placing nuclear weapons in South Korea could buttress China’s acceptance of the North’s nuclear program, while forcing the PRC, and perhaps Russia, to reevaluate their own security polices, leading to a far more volatile region with a higher potential for conflict.
Finally, the idea that North Korea’s arsenal threatens U.S. interests is unsubstantiated. North Korea, while in possession of nuclear weapons, has no credible nuclear deterrent. As Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce noted in a recent report, North Korea has no real delivery method for its nuclear weapons, and if used, would most likely have to be detonated within the North itself as a defensive measure.
Given the lack of a credible North Korean offensive nuclear threat and the detrimental consequences that would stem from a U.S. nuclear presence in the region, the U.S should refrain from undertaking aggressive policies.
North Korea is obsessed with asserting itself as a great power. The U.S. should utilize this obsession and help the DPRK to find alternative ways of asserting its self-perceived great power status, thus decreasing the need for nuclear weapons as a source of legitimacy. One example is the increased efforts that could go into the Kaesong Industrial complex, a point reaffirmed by CNAS’s Patrick Cronin. Obviously a non-nuclear North Korea should be the end goal, but that does not mean it should be the end all and be all of U.S. engagement with the DPRK.