Over the weekend, a U.S. scientist revealed that North Korea took him on a tour of its new “ultra-modern” uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon, ending longstanding doubts about Pyongyang’s home-grown capabilities at turning uranium into nuclear fuel. (Though it’s unclear whether the plant is already enriching uranium.) South Korea’s defense minister quickly cooked up a response, the Korea Herald reports: consider asking the U.S. to bring its nuclear weapons back.
“We will review (the redeployment) when (Korea and the U.S.) meet to consult on the matter at a committee for nuclear deterrence,” Minister Kim Tae-young told parliament, the Herald reports. That’s set to happen next month, when a recently-formalized U.S.-South Korean defense committee meets.
President George H.W. Bush announced in 1991 that the U.S. would withdraw all its battle-ready nukes from the Korean peninsula and Europe to deescalate global nuclear tensions. Bush the Elder boxed the sea-based, 2500-kilometer range Tomahawk cruise missile. And this year, the Pentagon’s giant strategy review recommended putting the Tomahawk out to pasture as part of an overall posture of taking nukes out of warfighting scenarios.
But in a Pentagon meeting with Minister Kim last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said North Korean “provocations will not be tolerated.” In the last 18 months, Pyongyang has tested a nuclear weapon, killed 46 South Korean sailors, and is now flaunting a new path to expanding its nuclear arsenal. Can the U.S. really turn down a request for tactical nukes if the Seoul makes it? The Pentagon punted the question to the White House. We’re waiting for a response and will update if and when we receive it.
A Korean defense ministry spokesman told the Associated Press that the effect of bringing the nukes back would be “mainly psychological,” since the U.S. has intimated for decades that it’ll nuke the North if it pushes the South too far. But it wouldn’t just be a psychological gesture to reassure Seoul and warn Pyongyang. It would also be a serious blow to Obama’s dream of denuclearizing the world, something for which, in part, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Already Obama may face a huge defeat in the Senate on his treaty with Russia to reduce each country’s nuclear weapons. That treaty doesn’t actually cover the smaller, less-threatening “tactical” nuclear weapons, focusing instead on giant nukes that could destroy whole cities. But the logic of returning nukes to a U.S. ally to prevent a potential conflict runs counter to Obama’s entire effort, since he’d concede that nuclear weapons have a place in conflict.
If the South Koreans make a nuke request and the U.S. denies it, though, the administration would effectively back away from an ally facing an escalating threat from one of the most erratic and militarized nations on earth. Already, Obama’s special envoy for North Korea is in Seoul for talks on the new uranium facility, saying the revelation is “not a crisis.” But if Bosworth can’t forestall the South Korean defense ministry from asking for U.S. nukes, it might quickly become a different type of headache.