A hole in the umbrella
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In Korea, politics eclipse all else. Gregory Henderson, a former Foreign Service officer and an expert on Korea, rightly pointed out in his 1968 book “Korea: The Politics of the Vortex” that politics in Korea is a blackhole that sucks in the attention of everyone. The phenomena strengthens during the presidential election season in particular. Urgent developments outside the country go unnoticed.
All U.S. allies are alert to the possible change in the U.S. nuclear policy as the Joe Biden administration considers adopting the No First Use (NFU) doctrine. According to a Financial Times report late last month, the U.S. administration is mulling the introduction of a policy called “sole purpose” — or use of nuclear weapons only in narrowly-prescribed extraordinary set of circumstances — in its nuclear policy posture review to be announced early next year.
That means the United States will only use nuclear weapons to protect itself or allies under nuclear attack or to retaliate. When the “sole purpose” gets Congressional approval, the U.S. won’t use nuclear weapons when America or allies come under attack from conventional weapons.
The policy is designed to prevent an unexpected regional conflict from developing into a nuclear war. For example, an accidental skirmish between U.S. fighter jets and their Russian counterparts in Eastern Europe could build up to a full-scale battle. If Russia fears a U.S. nuclear attack, it could use nuclear weapons to bomb U.S. military facilities first. A minor military clash could develop into a nuclear war that could jeopardize the entire planet.
A pre-U.S. declaration on NFU can deter Russia from taking a nuclear action. The U.S. administration also can save defense spending to advance preemptive attack technologies.
Given Biden’s support for the principle as the vice president under President Barack Obama, it is not that surprising that he would want to make clear the military doctrine.
The move has worried the U.S.’s European allies like Britain, Germany and France on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as Japan and Australia in the Pacific region. They fear a serious hole in the U.S. nuclear umbrella. They give strong arguments to back their scare.
First, if the U.S. chooses not to use nuclear weapons first, the risk of a conventional war increases. If Russia and China attack NATO members and Japan and Australia, respectively, with their mighty conventional weapons, it cannot be effectively countered if not for U.S. nuclear weapons.
Second, even if an enemy state attacks the U.S. or allies with mass-destruction chemical weapons such as bacteria or poisonous gas, the U.S. cannot retaliate with nuclear arms.
Third, a U.S. NFU could signal a weakening of the United States’ ability to defend allies. Allied nations are lobbying hard to pressure the Biden administration to scrap the idea.
South Korea, which should be most worried, is carefree. It has not attempted any lobbying or shown any sign of anxiety. When he was asked about the NFU on November 4, the Ministry of National Defense just said that there is no change in the commitment of the United States to the provision of its nuclear umbrella.
South Korean security is upheld by two pillars — the U.S nuclear umbrella and the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system. The localized antimissile system to be developed with 17 trillion won ($14.3 billion) in spending could be destabilized by North Korea’s progress in the development of ultra-sonic missiles. If the U.S. nuclear umbrella can no longer be relied upon, South Korea’s security is in serious danger. The country may have to pursue its own nuclear development.
Despite the perilous developments, the Moon Jae-in government is still seeking a joint declaration to end the Korean War with North Korea and arrange the Pope’s visit to Pyongyang. Instead of beseeching the pontiff in Rome to pay a visit to North Korea, President Moon must use his energy on the U.S. president to talk him out of NFU adoption.