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Amid crisis, influential South Korean politician wants to deploy US nukes

A member of the South Korean National Assembly called for US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula. He also suggested that Seoul consider developing its own deterrent.  

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A South Korean military ambulance passes at barricaded Unification Bridge near the border village of Panmunjom, that has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday.

Lee Jin-man/AP

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Calling international efforts to stop North Korea from building atomic weapons a “miserable failure,” a prominent South Korean lawmaker today called for the deployment of tactical US nuclear weapons in the South and suggested that his country think about developing their own nuclear deterrent. 

The call by M.J. Chung, a seven-term member of the Korean National Assembly and former presidential candidate, comes amid the biggest spike of tensions on the Korean peninsula in recent years. Among other threats, the new young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has threated to target Guam and Hawaii, and turn Seoul, South Korea’s capital, into a “sea of fire."

While few analysts think the White House or Pentagon would consider deploying nuclear weapons in Korea when they are already available at US facilities elsewhere, it may be a sign of Korean frustrations. It also could give leaders in Beijing something to think about – as it appears that Chinese technology and aid enable the regime in Pyongyang to survive.

Mr. Chung said “the lesson of the cold war” is that nuclear weapons must counter nuclear weapons for a threat to be credible. If deployed in South Korea, weapons of mass destruction would be an important bargaining chip, said Chung, who asked South Koreans to start “thinking the unthinkable” in order to deter war.

“North Korea’s economy is collapsed, it is isolated, and yet we have failed to stop them from gaining nuclear weapons,” he said to a roomful of policymakers and officials in a keynote address at an annual Carnegie Endowment for International Peace meeting in Washington. He argued that future generations would call the current dealings with North Korea one of the “most spectacular and consequential failures” of the age.

Chung recommended that if South Korea decided to develop its own nuclear deterrence, it could “temporarily” suspend its membership in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it has been a signatory since the 1970s.

The provocative nature of that call was amplified since it was made at a Washington conference attended mostly by advocates of nonproliferation and disarmament.

“We have all failed and it is now up to us to think of new options,” Chung said later in a Monitor interview.

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North Korea's role

Chung urged Beijing to exert more pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang, posing the question: “Does it make sense for China to keep North Korea as a buffer state even if it goes nuclear?” 

Some analysts called Chung’s nuclear deployment proposal a nonstarter. But, says Scott Snyder of the Council of Foreign Relations, the idea “sends a message to China that is very clear about how serious things have become.”

A member of the Japanese defense ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, was asked whether he would support a deployment of nuclear missiles in South Korea.  He smiled and said no. “One day after the missiles are aimed at North Korea,” he said, turning his body 180 degrees, “they could be aimed at Tokyo.”

While Chung’s views are not those of the South Korean government, some analysts said they reflect growing anxieties in Seoul. Yesterday North Korea closed a joint North-South industrial park at Kaesong considered a symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas.

Won't take it anymore

In another recent change of dynamic for South Korea, its new president, Park Geun-hye, has warned that South Korea will no longer accept provocations from the North without responding.

Seoul has long felt its interests and concerns have played a back-seat role among larger powers when it comes to security matters involving the Korean peninsula. South Koreans often complain that they don't get enough attention, given the stakes involved, a view articulated by Chung. 

“South Korea has grown tired of what amounts to nuclear blackmail by North Korea and they have been rhetorically drawing lines in the sand,” says Mr. Synder. “We are seeing a psychological change in South Korea toward more intolerance of provocations at the same time of a psychological change in North Korea, where the Kim regime has more swagger after its successful tests,” he says.

In recent weeks, the US has flown B-2 Stealth bombers, F-22 jets, and B-52s over South Korea and has recommitted itself to the security of the South, where some 28,000 US soldiers are based.

Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterrey Institute, an arms-control think tank in California, says Koreans are far too politically divided when it comes to the US to accept US missiles on their soil. He notes recent volatile protests over the re-introduction to South Korea of US beef products, adding, “If hamburgers cause riots on the streets of Seoul, imagine what nuclear weapons would bring.” 

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