Spurred in great measure by North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, calls for Seoul to seek deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea or to develop a domestic nuclear weapons program have become frequent in recent months.1 In February, Seoul’s Asan Institute conducted a public opinion poll that determined 68.6% of South Koreans would favor redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons – or even development of a South Korean nuclear weapons program.2
Proponents of stationing nuclear weapons in South Korea offer three arguments. Each is seemingly compelling, yet none is actually convincing.
First, proponents argue that stationing of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) would somehow preclude low-level provocations and deter North Korean brinkmanship behavior. According to this logic, the gradual relocation and reduction of U.S. troops deployed in Korea are generating doubts about the credibility of the U.S.-ROK alliance and are removing the “trip wire” that would necessitate U.S. involvement in Korea should North Korea attempt to invade. Such reduced U.S. capacity to respond could be offset by deployment of NSNW.
There are three flaws to this argument. First, South Korea actually supports many of these reductions and has tried to accelerate the time scale, since the land that U.S. forces currently occupy will be returned to the ROK and relocation will support economically-depressed regions. Therefore it is inaccurate and unfair to allege that the U.S. is weakening extended deterrence by these actions. Second, the argument assumes that NSNW will be sufficient to ensure U.S. involvement in the event of North Korean aggression, yet this does not necessarily follow, as U.S. responses presumably would depend on the prior causes of a potential conflict. Third, it is assumed that the renewed presence of U.S. NSNW would effectively deter a wide range of potential DPRK actions, but the credibility and effectiveness of nuclear deterrence generally cannot be counted on at levels of crisis or aggression that are not commensurate with the damage that would be done if and when nuclear weapons were used by the U.S. and/or the DPRK. Deterring low-level attacks is complex and it is by no means clear that stationing NSNW will accomplish this. Moreover, the ROK appears to lack a model for escalation and response to attacks by North Korea, with or without NSNW, up a long potential ladder of potential moves and counter-moves. It would behoove the ROK to develop and exercise models of escalation management before declaring that NSNW on its territory would be desirable.
The second argument for redeployment is that it would establish parity in negotiations with North Korea. The continuing failure to convince North Korea to disarm has left many in the ROK disillusioned with the seemingly cyclical, feckless diplomacy to achieve this objective, which has not resulted in DPRK compliance with the 1992 Denuclearization Treaty. As one exasperated analyst noted, the DPRK and ROK have held 600 talks and concluded 150 agreements since 1971, none of whose terms have been satisfied.3
Proponents of this view, such as Representative Song Young-sun of the Future Hope Alliance, argue that the presence of nuclear weapons in South Korea is necessary since “negotiations can be made only when two parties are on an equal footing.”4
Similarly, spokeswoman of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) Chung Ok-nim has asserted that NSNW should be redeployed and then withdrawn only when Pyongyang has fully dismantled its program. GNP Representative Won Yoo-chul has argued that debating redeployment will pressure Russia and China to more aggressively seek disarmament in North Korea.
Superficially, the parity argument is appealing because leverage always seems desirable. Yet, it is worth recalling that parity between the Koreas through the 1990s, or even until North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, did not solve the nuclear crisis and North Korean provocations occurred regularly.5
Furthermore, the broader regional effects of NSNW redeployment could well destabilize the situation further, depending on Chinese, Japanese, and Russian responses. Redeployment could also divide the South Korean population, detracting from efforts to resolve the ongoing crisis.
The third argument is aimed to boost the relevance of ROK concerns. Some South Koreans hope requesting redeployment or developing an indigenous nuclear weapons program would be a bargaining gambit that could win improved terms for South Korea, for instance, convincing the United States to grant South Korea permission to develop reprocessing or pyroprocessing capabilities in the next U.S.-ROK 123 agreement.6
Through the redeployment discussion, some seek to ease U.S. or international restrictions on South Korea’s military infrastructure, such as range limitations on ballistic missiles. These arguments are based on fears that ties with the United States have jeopardized Seoul’s ability to secure itself, while Washington has not provided sufficient alternative support in return. That South Korea is held to bilateral ROK-DPRK treaties the North violates is infuriating to South Koreans.
Whether redeployment actually proceeded or the debate led to more military flexibility for South Korea, it would have prestige implications. Gaining a latent nuclear weapons capability or leverage in the alliance with the United States would alter the ROK's status vis à vis its competitors, notably Japan. However, this prestige argument neglects to consider the severe decline in prestige South Korea could experience were the United States to redeploy or were Seoul to develop a domestic nuclear weapons capability. Proponents have not sufficiently weighed the economic implications, in conjunction with the deterioration in neighborhood relations that would most likely ensue. More directly cataloguing threats, contingencies, and security requirements would result in more effective policies.
How extensive is support for the reintroduction of nuclear weapons?
Several conservative lawmakers– a smattering of members of the ruling Grand National Party, including the spokeswoman and the chair of the National Defense Committee, and a couple members of Liberty Forward Party and the Future Hope Alliance have provided vocal political support. They are joined by several experts at prominent research institutes and universities, as well as by the editorial boards of at least two major daily newspapers, all of which harbor an interest in considering redeployment. Perhaps the most ardent supporter of NSNW redeployment is Chung Mung-joon, a six-term member of the National Assembly for the GNP, a former and likely future Presidential candidate, a wealthy majority shareholder in the Hyundai Corporation, and sponsor of the Asan Insitute (which conducted the public opinion poll cited at the outset). President Lee Myung-bak and many of his cabinet members have explicitly and repeatedly stated, however, that the ROK has no plans to request redeployment. Thus, the redeployment interest appears to be limited to a sizable minority of the elite, with at least some of these promoting the debates for heuristic purposes. This debate appears to be mostly taking place among the policy elite, many of whom countenance restraint in open airing of these views, for fear of stoking tensions.
The public’s views are certainly more nuanced and conflicted than the Asan poll captures and are reflective of complex feelings about relations with North Korea. Many Koreans now appear to blame former President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” policy for the standoff with North Korea. The Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents are seen as stemming from the hardline policies of the current administration. A poll taken after the Yeonpyeong incident found that 80.3% of Koreans supported harsher military action to respond to North Korean low-level attacks.7
The public seeks a complex and potentially contradictory outcome: a lower threshold for military action in the near-term, more diplomatic efforts in general, no increase in tensions with the DPRK, support from the U.S. alliance to somehow fully deter and denuclearize the North, not even brooking low-level noncompliance.
Owing to the 2010 incidents, South Korea is focusing on military modernization. In March 2011, it unveiled 73 military reforms, including opting for harsher responses to provocations. Troops reportedly have been ordered to respond to every round of artillery fire from the DPRK with three rounds.8
South Korea is working to develop improved submarine surveillance technology.9
And, in a shift to what it is calling “proactive deterrence,” Korea is improving precision strike and intelligence capabilities.10
The calls for reployment or re-embarking on the nuclear weapons program it halted in the 1970s seem unrealistic. Instead, they appear to be an impulsive reaction (quite understandable) to frustration at failure to resolve the nuclear saga and an inability to prevent low-level provocations from North Korea. Some lawmakers even acknowledge as much. More moderate proponents of redeployment argue for it partly to draw focus to the issue. Many opposed to redeployment have argued that it would further stoke tensions, undermine South Korea’s global economic status, and be ineffective.11
Living in a continuous state of crisis can hamper coherent thought.
The debate has important implications for the United States.
Redeployment requests from South Korea exhibit doubt in the strength of the alliance, or even a wishful but unrealistic hope that the alliance can escape doubt. Discontent with the DPRK nuclear saga, though, is a more salient feature of the discussion. Nonetheless, symbolic mechanisms to better demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance could be worth exploring.
The United States would do well to discuss with Korea how to address low-level violence and provocations so as to minimize the violence without inviting radically escalating cycles of action and reaction, and with a view to pacifying relations. Surveillance technology cooperation could be particularly beneficial. The recently founded U.S.-ROK extended deterrence committee is an appropriate forum for considering these matters. The United States and South Korea appear to be uncertain of each other’s views on what deterrence entails and various ways it can be strengthened on the Korean Peninsula today.12
In case prevention of low-level provocations fails, the United States and ROK should also address contingencies for containing escalation.
The North Korea nuclear issue routinely outlives administrations operating on different election cycles. It would be beneficial for the non-DPRK parties to the Six Party Talks to meet and map an approach designed to endure beyond the upcoming leadership transitions that will take place in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing. Though many administrations begin with a partisan approach, the difficult reality of this problem results in policy approaches remarkable in their similarity. Preserving these conclusions, to the greatest extent possible, could sharply cut down the learning curve.
Though South Korea abandoned its first nuclear weaponization efforts in the 1970s, the issue is again apposite. In a democracy, such debates may are likely to recur, particularly during election seasons.
1. Recent events heighten pressure on this debate. On August 10, North and South Korea twice exchanged multiple artillery fire rounds. Also lately, diplomats have dabbled in preliminary discussions, talking in New York, D.C., and Bali about reconvening the Six Party Talks. In response to the beginning of annual U.S.-ROK military exercises that include simulating seeking and destroying DPRK WMD facilities, Pyongyang issued a public letter decrying the exercises as blackmail.
2. “Majority of S. Koreans Want Atomic Bomb: Survey,” The Straits Times (March 23, 2011),
4. Lee Tae-hoon, “South Korea Should Consider Nuclear Option,” Korea Times (February 14, 2011),
5. Hannah Fischer, “North Korean Provocative Actions, 1950-2007,” Congressional Research Service Report (April 20, 2007).
6. Ser Myo-ja, “GNP Reps Want Return of U.S. Nuclear Weapons,” Korea JoongAng Daily, (February 26, 2011),
7. Nae-young Lee and Han-wool Jeong, “Ambivalence Toward North Korea: South Korean Public Perceptions Following the Attack on Yeonpyeong Island,” East Asia Institute Issue Briefing (January 17, 2011), 4.
8. John Roberts, “Washington and Seoul Ramp up Tensions on Korean Penninsula,” wsws.org, March 4, 2011,
9. U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Armed Services, Hearing to Receive Testimony on U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2012 and the Future Years Defense Program. 112th Cong., 1st sess., April 12, 2011, pg. 31.
11. Lee Byong-chul, “Nuclear Weapons Won’t Help S. Korea Live With North,” Jakarta Globe, (March 10, 2011), http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/opinion/nuclear-weapons-wont-help-s-korea-live-with-north/427778; Yee Yong-in, “Conservatives Renew Call for Nuclear Weapons on Korean Penninsula,” The Hankyoreh (March 1, 2011), http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/465872.html; Ralph Cossa, “US Nuclear Weapons to South Korea?” 38north.org (July 13, 2011), http://38north.org/2011/07/rcossa071211/.