Another nuclear challenge
The author is the former Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs and former Ambassador to Russia.
While all eyes were on North Korea-U.S. summit, another issue that can affect the Korean Peninsula’s security and North Korean nuclear affairs is emerging between the United States and Russia. It is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia, which is about to be broken. The two countries agreed not to possess ground-launched missiles that have ranges from between 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3417 miles). Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the treaty is a symbol of trust-building between the two nuclear powers and a landmark accord signaling the end of the Cold War.
Controversy began in 2014, when the United States claimed that Russia’s newly developed cruise missile violated the treaty. Russia denied. In 2017, Russia began deploying the missiles. The United States kicked off final negotiations with Russia. As little progress was made, however, the United States notified Russia in February of its intention to scrap the treaty. The treaty will be terminated in six months.
While the primary reason to break the treaty was Russia’s violation, the United States has another reason to terminate it — curbing the threat from intermediate-range missiles of China. As the treaty is an agreement between the United States and Russia, it does not apply to China. While the United States and Russia eliminated all ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, China has been expanding without any restriction. Now, China has about 2,000 intermediate-range missiles — many of them deployed to prevent the U.S. Forces from approaching China. They are mainly targeting U.S. warships, aircraft and bases in the region. The United States increasingly feels the need to respond to them.
When the treaty is annulled and the United States begins to respond in Northeast Asia, China and Russia won’t stay still, which will surely affect South Korea. There can be a few scenarios. First of all, the United States could deploy intermediate-range missiles, using the justification of strategic balance against China’s intermediate-range strength.
Theoretically, the United States can deploy intermediate-range missiles on ground, air and sea. Air and sea deployment can be done immediately, as they are not under the INF treaty. But considering that the United States hasn’t augmented its air and sea missiles until now — and ground-launched missiles are inexpensive and efficient — it is likely that ground missiles will be deployed. Moreover, detection radars or missile defense systems can be deployed on the ground.
Moreover, the United States began producing the small nuclear warheads that had been dismantled in the U.S.-Russia nuclear reduction process, because Russia did not abolish the same type of nuclear warheads. Once the United States loads small nuclear warheads on intermediate-range missiles, the conventional military strength issue turns into a nuclear one.
If China and Russia respond to these moves of the United States, it will lead to a nuclear missile race in Northeast Asia. If confrontations intensify when the U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations are already at their worst in decades, the tension around the Korean Peninsula will inevitably escalate.
In Northeast Asia, however, there are challenges from North Korea’s intermediate-range missiles on top of China’s missiles. The United States would attempt to deploy detection radar, missile defense systems or intermediate-range missiles in South Korea with a justification to protect its ally and U.S. bases in South Korea as well as U.S. vessels and aircraft that defend their ally. In case of detection radar, it is geographically efficient to deploy them in South Korea to respond to the threats from China and North Korea.
North Korea would protest because its nuclear missiles capability would be restricted by intermediate-range missiles of the United States. China and Russia also would oppose more fiercely than they did to the deployment of the Thaad missile defense system in South Korea. As the spark spreads to South Korea, it could be at the center of contention.
It will surely make North Korean nuclear negotiations more complicated. Pyongyang would claim that Washington escalated nuclear and conventional threats to North Korea. North Korea will consider whether to leave restrictions to its nuclear and missiles capability unaddressed. China and Russia may support North Korea out of antagonism against the United States. International cooperation to address the North Korean nuclear issue would become loose.
In this case, Pyongyang could be tempted to reinforce its negotiation edge by turning to provocation. Of course, a more critical factor that can affect North Korea’s decision is the progress of the nuclear negotiation after the Hanoi meeting. But now that the Hanoi meeting broke apart, it is hard to expect successful follow-up negotiations at least for a while. With the intermediate-range issue added to the equation, the probability of North Korea making a bad choice is growing sharply.
The 1987 INF Treaty was a prelude to the end of the Cold War. But this treaty is about to be scrapped. Now that South Korea is making unprecedented efforts to address the North Korean nuclear threat — a legacy of the Cold War — the risk of another Cold War-era nuclear missiles race is growing fast over the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea must look into the future and act preemptively. We should not repeat the precedence of Thaad, which became a serious issue because of a lack of preparations and planning. A new challenge is quickly approaching the already-complicated denuclearization talks.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Sunday, Mar. 2-3, Page 31