The three obstacles
Three issues need to be resolved in order to have tactical nuclear weapons. The first is the consent of the United States. This is the primary concern. The B-61 tactical nuclear warhead is the model that can be applied to the Korean Peninsula, and among the 680 units in existence, 180 are in Europe and 500 are in the United States. It will cost $11 billion to upgrade to its latest variant — the B-61 Mod 12 — by the year 2019. If this expensive tactical nuclear bomb is deployed in Korea, thousands of additional troops will be needed for protection and maintenance.
Seoul asked for “development of strategic assets” after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, but U.S. President Donald Trump rejected that request for lack of funding. The United States is not likely to invest an enormous sum of money anywhere that does not yield profits. Despite Senator McCain’s remark, most members of the Congress, which oversees funding of the government, are skeptical of the idea.
Moreover, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that contains next year’s defense budget has already been passed by the House and is to be passed by the Senate. Of course, the NDAA funding does not include a deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Korea. Unless Trump and the Senate change their minds all at once, the game is over.
Even if Korea pays the cost fully or partially, it is not likely that Trump would hand over such sensitive nuclear assets to Korea. The ROK-U.S. Strategic Forum in Washington DC last week symbolically showed this. In a closed session, a high-level U.S. official asked if the Moon Jae-in administration actually employs a policy of appeasement with North Korea. “Appeasement” is the expression Trump used to describe Seoul’s stance after the sixth nuclear test.
The Trump administration is angry that South Korea is not following its direction as an ally, and South Korea is upset because the United States is an ally that is inconsiderate. Without basic trust, further discussions on tactical nuclear weapons cannot happen. The NBC report and McCain’s remark were likely to be intentional moves to pressure China before the latest round of UN sanctions on North Korea.
The second obstacle is public opinion in Korea. The Blue House and liberals say that redeployment of tactical nukes results in a logical pitfall: It prevents us from demanding Pyongyang give up its nuclear program. South Korea has been stirred over the deployment of a battery of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield. Bringing in tactical nukes will lead to even more division.
Last, China and Russia will certainly oppose. As Beijing obsesses over denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it will surely apply sanctions and pressure far more severe than its Thaad retaliations. It won’t stop at vulgar, rough words like, “Korea became dumb after eating kimchi.” Can Korea bear with that physically and mentally?
It would require some kind of magic to resolve all three issues. Yet, we cannot neglect the discussion altogether. China is lukewarm about suspending oil supplies to North Korea. Some pressure on Beijing could be useful. The fight has already turned into a long battle. If the best options are gone and bringing back tactical nuclear weapons is the only option left, we have to get onto it now. Issues need to be resolved one by one, and the most urgent task is rebuilding trust with the United States.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 12, Page 34
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.