Providing South Korea with its own capabilities of nuclear deterrence may instead increase the risk of nuclear war

Richard Sokolsky writes: South Korean hawks have marshalled several arguments to defend their view that the US should deploy nuclear weapons on their territory and even allow the South to become a nuclear weapons state. According to this perspective, the North Koreans are unlikely to accept denuclearization unless they face considerably more pressure, and a more robust US and South Korean nuclear presence would provide badly needed leverage to force the North to bargain away its own nuclear capabilities. In addition, US TNW in South Korea or a nuclear-armed South Korea would counterbalance North Korean nuclear weapons and thus deter the North from starting a nuclear war or trying to use its unilateral nuclear advantage to coerce political concessions from the South. Moreover, confronting China with the prospect of a nuclear South Korea (and Japan) and an increased risk of nuclear escalation might be enough to scare China into using its leverage to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Although these arguments have gained some traction among the South Korean public, there are compelling reasons for the US to refuse redeployment of TNW in South Korea and reject its development of nuclear weapons. First, the existing US nuclear umbrella, especially sea-based weapons that roam the waters of the Western Pacific, and the presence of US forces in South Korea provide ample deterrent to the use of North Korean nuclear weapons. If these capabilities do not deter the North from starting a war, basing a few more weapons on South Korean soil will not change this calculus.

A US decision to redeploy TNW would also raise the thorny issue of operational decision-making and command authority over the use of these weapons. The South Korean government, like the governments of NATO countries where nuclear weapons are based, might prefer command arrangements with shared authority (in NATO, parlance “dual key” arrangements exist that require positive actions by both the US and basing countries to order nuclear release.) However, the commander of US Forces Korea would almost certainly want sole authority to employ these weapons. And because of the compressed time for decision-making due to the short distances involved, he might be given pre-delegated launch authority in certain conditions. Under these circumstances, and especially because both US and North Korean nuclear weapons would be highly vulnerable to a pre-emptive first strike, there would be strong incentives on both sides to use these weapons first or risk losing them. Thus, the re-introduction of US TNW in South Korea, while aimed at deterring a North Korean nuclear attack, could actually increase the risk of a nuclear exchange. [Continue reading…]

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