[Viewpoint] Paving a road for nuclear deterrence

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[Viewpoint] Paving a road for nuclear deterrence

U.S. President Barack Obama will be dealing with a series of events on nuclear weapons this spring. Last Tuesday, his administration unveiled a new U.S. nuclear policy with the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), pledging commitment to contain its use of nuclear arsenals to discourage the spread of nuclear technology in other parts of the world. Washington is hosting a nuclear summit with 47 countries yesterday and today, and in early May Obama joins the United Nations’ five-year review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The array of events is all part of his vision of a “nuclear-free” world he preached about in Prague last April.

President Obama last year outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, at a time when the threat of rouge nuclear attacks and the spread of nuclear weapons replaced the Cold War possibility of massive nuclear exchanges. He proposed three action plans - containment and dismantlement of nuclear weapons; nonproliferation; and assurance of safety and a peaceful use of nuclear resources.

The new NPR contains the first important step toward these ambitious goals. The doctrine departs from Cold War-era dogma as it tries to fit into a changed global nuclear environment. The review implies Washington’s subtle balancing between its commitment on reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and maintaining a strong national defense and deterrence capacity. The review narrows the U.S. use of nuclear weapons to foes like North Korea and Iran that are not in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other international obligations.

The U.S. pledged not to develop new nuclear warheads and cut weapons numbers, but will maintain the current nuclear umbrella while strengthening conventional military power and deterrence against missile and mass destruction weapons. In regional security, the new review says it will maintain the role of nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. assured that it would not sacrifice its defense posture, despite the nuclear restrictions, by planning to refurbish aging infrastructure and building up advanced conventional arms.

Along with the declaration of the new nuclear doctrine, the Obama administration took concrete steps toward the goal of making the world free of nuclear weapons. President Obama last week met his Russian counterpart to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that pledges to cut nuclear warheads of the two countries by one-third from the current levels.

Government leaders will gather this week to discuss ways to contain the development and trade of nuclear materials used in weapons. President Lee Myung-bak is among them. Participants at the summit will sign a four-year program to secure and control all vulnerable nuclear materials. The participants will have to build a united front against nuclear terrorism and come up with action plans to keep nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists and rogue states. They must seek ways to hunt and intercept the illicit trade in nuclear weapons and material, and strengthen punishment on noncompliance. Such security initiatives will help curb the transport of nuclear material and threat of nuclear attack. The event will serve to lay the foundation for global efforts on transforming nuclear resources from arms use to peaceful purposes and create a positive mood for the upcoming NPT conference.

Countries without nuclear weapons are eager to learn how to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes. But the campaign to muster global efforts to contain nuclear trade may not be that easy as countries differ in terms of nuclear threat perceptions.

The U.S.’s new nuclear strategy has strong implications concerning its commitment to offer a nuclear umbrella to protect the Korean Peninsula and disarm North Korea.

It is aimed to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of America’s capacity and will to deter against nuclear attacks. The review contained a clearly stated caveat that it can use nuclear weapons against countries that violate the nonproliferation treaty and that it reserves the right to provide nuclear deterrence in various ways. It also says the country will reinforce missile and advanced conventional arms to strengthen comprehensive deterrence ability. The change in U.S. nuclear posture therefore won’t likely weaken any deterrence against North Korea.

The U.S. has now gained moral leverage to lead the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea through its public pledge to reduce its dependence on the nuclear option. The campaign to reduce nuclear capacity and promote proliferation worldwide will likely hamper North Korea’s nuclear program.

The global efforts to secure nuclear material will also set the tone for the next six-party talks by drawing attention to dismantlement rather than nonproliferation. We must maintain close relations with the United States to secure nuclear deterrence against North Korea until it completely scraps its nuclear program. At the same time, we must play an active role in global platforms like the nuclear summit to contribute to the cementing of an international stand on nuclear security and the peaceful use of nuclear resources.

*The writer is a professor of military studies at Korea National Defense University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lee Suk-soo
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