Seize the day, bring back nukes

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Seize the day, bring back nukes


North Korea has become a de facto nuclear state. You might want to deny it, but that is the reality. North Korea has not one but multiple types of nuclear weapons, including plutonium, uranium, boosted fission and hydrogen bombs. While some presume that hydrogen bomb development is still far away, Pyongyang has come this far despite other countries’ underestimation of its capability. A high-level U.S. government official once told me, “We have nothing to cause us to doubt that this was a test of an advanced nuclear device.” Since the alleged hydrogen bomb test, North Korean party, government and military officials have repeatedly emphasized unification by force. This is the security reality for South Korea.

When military tension escalates between a country with nuclear weapons and a country without and war is about to break out, there are few choices for the non-nuclear state. Hans Morgenthau, a leading figure in realism in international relations, once famously said it is either destruction or surrender. The only way for a non-nuclear state to survive is becoming a nuclear state by maintaining the balance of terror. When the balance of terror is maintained, a nuclear war can be deterred. It evokes the fear that if I use nuclear weapons, the enemy will also use it and destroy all. This is the very reason why the United States, Russia and China have not started a nuclear war against each other since they developed nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan are in a similar situation. The two countries engaged in three wars over the territorial ownership of Kashmir in 1947 and 1965 and over the independence of East Pakistan in 1971. In fact, the two countries share deep-rooted antagonism in terms of ethnicity, religion and territory. Bombings occur from time to time, but the terror attacks haven’t escalated into a war as it did in the past, and there is only one reason: Both countries have nuclear weapons. Since its first nuclear test in 1974, India conducted five more in 1998 and became a nuclear state. Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests in 1998 and now possesses nuclear weapons.

The balance of terror has more function than deterring war. It could be a precondition for cooperation, as it had been for East and West Germany. In 1975, the Soviet Union deployed 650 midrange SS-20 nuclear ballistic missiles in the Eastern Bloc, including East Germany. The balance with West Germany, where the United States deployed short-range Lance and Pershing missiles, was broken. Helmut Schmidt’s government in West Germany decided to bring in 96 midrange Pershing II missiles from the United States.

Despite ferocious domestic opposition, the Schmidt government created a balance of fear with East Germany as noted in a Sept. 7 column by JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer Nam Jeong-ho. Upon securing military deterrence, West Germany pursued a full-scale engagement policy with East Germany and attained West Germany-led unification. In fact, since both countries secured mutual deterrence in the 2000s, Pakistan and India have been settling their long-held antagonism and pursuing talks and trade.

The only way to secure deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and seek inter-Korean cooperation is to have nuclear weapons for ourselves. We can either develop our own nuclear weapons or bring back tactical nuclear weapons from the United States. Self-armament could conflict with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and lead to severe sanctions if the international community does not recognize Seoul’s justifications, and since trade is the main source of South Korea’s income, we cannot live with sanctions. Therefore, bringing in tactical nuclear weapons from the United States that do not violate the nonproliferation treaty is a more reasonable option.

South Koreans will feel more secure if tactical nuclear weapons are deployed. In our hands, nuclear weapons offer far more security than those in Guam or the United States. It will also help people engage in normal economic activities and enjoy their daily lives free from the fear of a nuclear war. Moreover, once tactical nuclear weapons are deployed, the international community can discuss denuclearization of not just North Korea but the whole Korean Peninsula.

In order to bring back tactical nuclear weapons, Seoul and Washington will have to discuss hundreds of details, including procedures for deployment, management, approval and training. South Korea’s sovereignty can be reflected more than in NATO, which jointly operates tactical nuclear weapons with the United States.

However, all this can only be considered after we reach a political consensus on tactical nuclear weapons. U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have made up his mind, and these opportunities don’t come often. We have to seize them.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 13, Page 33

*The author is director of security strategy at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.

Kim Yeol-su
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