Only nukes deter nukesNorth Korea’s successful launch of the Hwasong-14 was the moment that suggested the country is about to have the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability to attack the U.S. mainland. As someone who had participated in the denuclearization negotiation, drawn up policy and studied the North for the past 27 years, I felt a serious sense of shame. Until the North developed the missile, what have we done?
We often underestimate the North’s capability and put priority on inter-Korean relations. When the North conducted its first nuclear test, the South Korean president at the time even said it was a self-defense measure against U.S. hostility. We believed that the North was developing nuclear weapons for its survival and that creating an environment for the North’s survival was important to resolve the issue. If survival of the regime was the goal, the North only needed minimum deterrence, but its latest moves show it is going far beyond the goal.
The North’s ICBM development is a mechanism that induces the United States to give up defending the South. The moment the North has the ability to attack the U.S. mainland, Washington has to confront the risk of giving up San Francisco and Los Angeles to help South Korea. The reliability of the extended deterrence is put in doubt. Because of the North’s ICBM, the South and the U.S. could face decoupling.
North Korea’s missile technology threatening the continental U.S. is a nightmare for us. It means a game changer in the joint defense of South Korea and the U.S. that protected our safety for the past 65 years. Even if a negotiation takes place, the North will likely win recognition as a nuclear state in return for giving up the ICBM technology, and they will demand a North-U.S. peace treaty. On the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will likely enjoy a nuclear monopoly.
In the face of the North’s nuclear threats, overwhelming deterrence, not diplomacy, is the only thing that can protect the South. It is common sense that a nuclear weapon can only be deterred by another nuclear weapon. In response to the North’s ICBM technology, we must strengthen the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. We have to ensure that the U.S. nuclear retaliation is automatic when the North conducts a nuclear provocation. Some argue that we must reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons. But it is questionable if they can really be deployed, because the current political situation doesn’t even allow smooth deployment of a defense system.
In the 1980s the Soviet Union’s new nuclear missile deployment triggered a serious debate over the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over NATO allies. NATO countries strengthened the nuclear umbrella by deploying the U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles.
As of now, the United States does not have nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and in nearby waters. To protect South Korea, the strategic nuclear weapons of the U.S. mainland should be used. A submarine carrying nuclear weapons must be deployed to the East Sea to use it as a nuclear deterrence. In cooperation with Japan, which faces the same threats, the nuclear submarine needs to be managed jointly among the three countries in order to bolster the reliability of the nuclear umbrella.
We also need to establish the missile defense system as soon as possible. The South Korean military is investing 17 trillion won ($15 billion) to build the so-called “Kill Chain” aimed at launching a preemptive strike and taking out nuclear missiles. The Korean Air and Missile defense (KAMD) will intercept the missiles the North still managed to fire. In a democracy, can we really make a decision to launch a large-scale preemptive strike when a sign of aggression appears?
Moreover, the concept is based on the unprecedented situation of launching a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against a nuclear state. The common sense of deterrence does not work for a nuclear state. The North is also building mobile launchers, developing submarine-launched missiles and using solid fuels to disable the Kill Chain. It is worrisome that the Kill Chain, even before its completion, will become useless.
The negative perception toward the missile defense system prompted distortion in our defense power. Instead of PAC-3s that are capable of missile defense, we introduced the fraying PAC-2s. We introduced the world’s largest Aegis ship even without the capability to defend against ballistic missiles. The South Korean military still does not have a defense against missiles.
Instead of focusing on grand ideas such as nuclear submarines and independent nuclear weapons development, we must do things that can be done immediately with less money. The Patriot missiles should be modified to PAC-3s as soon as possible and SM-3 interceptors must be placed on the Aegis destroyers to shoot down ballistic missiles. And we must introduce one or two additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad)-level antimissile batteries to counter the Rodong missiles that are fired with a lofted, high-angle trajectory.
The Kill Chain can still play an important role in reducing the damages when deterrence fails.
If we do not have reliable deterrence, North Korea will not treat us as a partner in negotiation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 7, Page 29
*The author, former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, is a chair professor of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.