The US government confirmed Monday that it has no plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. It is the first official denial from the Obama administration concerning the issue after Republicans from the House of Representatives called for “redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region.”
“Our policy remains support for a nonnuclear Korean Peninsula, so we don’t have any plans to change that policy,” State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing. “Tactical nuclear weapons, in our view, are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea. So we don’t have any plans or intentions to deploy them there.”
The South Korean government also overtly rejected using nuclear weapons as a means of putting pressure on the North. “We are in accord with the United States on this issue, and have never discussed the deployment of nuclear weapons with the US government,” an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade stated, Wednesday. “The South Korean government would adhere to the spirit of the 1992 denuclearisation agreement.”
Both Koreas issued a joint statement in 1992 in which they vowed to rid the Korean Peninsula of all nuclear weapons to “eliminate the threat of possible nuclear war.” Shortly before the agreement, the United States withdrew its “nuclear umbrella” for South Korea when it removed the last remaining tactical nuclear weapons from its key ally.
Paik Hak-soon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said that deploying nuclear weapons would only embolden North Korea to stick to its only remaining option, sustaining the increasingly fragile regime against outside pressure.
“It would amount to abandoning the country’s efforts to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, in the face of international sanctions, North Korea would do all it could to accelerate its nuclear and long-range missile development.”
Another Foreign Ministry official explained why the government did not want to put nuclear weapons on its soil. South Korea was demanding the North’s denuclearisation from a “morally superior” position, and that it would be “undesirable” to redeploy nuclear weapons that the United States already pulled out in 1991, the official said on May 13.
The United States may have a more practical reason for not deploying tactical nuclear weapons. Having more than its fair share of domestic and foreign policy challenges, the current administration may have little appetite for adding to its list of problems by triggering yet more tension in Korea.
President Obama is facing a presidential election which most experts agree will be the toughest reelection campaign for an incumbent president since Jimmy Carter. The presence of more than 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan has failed to bring about a decisive outcome against the Taliban insurgency, and Iran shows little sign of giving up its nuclear programme.
Given this situation, the Obama administration may simply wish that North Korea not embark upon yet another round of provocations and remain quiet instead – at least until the upcoming election. It is likely that calls for nuclear weapon deployment may dissipate by that time.
North Korea has repeatedly conducted nuclear tests and satellite launches despite strong sanctions from the international community, most recently its rocket launch in April 28. Though a spectacular failure, the test stimulated Chung Mong-joon, a conservative politician bidding for the ruling Saenuri party’s presidential nomination, to declare that the country should consider reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons.
Republicans in the House Armed Services Committee made a similar request to bolster deterrence against potential threats from North Korea. The amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorisation Act mandates the Defense and State Departments to inform Congress of the viability of “re-fielding nonstrategic nuclear arms” in the area. -by Chung Hee-hyung