Balancing nukes with nukes

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Balancing nukes with nukes

Kim jung-ha

The author is a political news editor at the JoonAng Ilbo.

Sweden and Finland are not ruling out the possibility of hosting nuclear weapons as a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear sharing pact once they join the western alliance against Russia. In their press conference on Nov. 1, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said the country was setting no preconditions, or no limit to “our room for maneuvering,” for permanent bases for nuclear weapons. Her Swedish counterpart Ulf Kristersson said the two countries would “go hand-in-hand” in the stance over embracing NATO capabilities.

Despite its neutrality during the Cold War to avoid any conflict with the Soviet Union, Sweden actually sought nuclear weapons development in the 1950s to defend itself against the Soviets threat. It abandoned the program in the face of changes in international politics and inner opposition. Appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden relinquished its neutrality to join NATO and even considers deployment of nuclear weapons to the country.

The dramatic shift in the Swedish position has ramifications for South Korea as North Korea is readying to detonate a nuclear device for the seventh time. South Korea is looking at a catastrophe if North Korea succeeds in developing tactical nuclear weapons through the seventh test and gains international recognition as a nuclear weapons state.

Through the sophistication of its missile launch capabilities, North Korea poses a serious challenge to South Korea’s Kill Chain missile defense system aimed at destroying North Korean missiles before they are fired. The latest launches of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) showed they were capable of a “pull-up” maneuver in the terminal phase of flight to make it hard to intercept.

If a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) under careful development by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un joins the country’s missile repertoire, South Korea could become directly under nuclear danger.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has consolidated his power base with bloody purges over the past 10 years, as starkly illustrated in this graphic, and takes bold steps toward getting international recognition as a nuclear weapons state.

In theory, a “balance of terror” is essential to deter the use of nuclear weapons against another. South Korea is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. In principle, the U.S. should retaliate on behalf of South Korea with nuclear weapons if the North fires a nuclear missile to the South. In the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle was highly skeptical of U.S. nuclear umbrella after the Soviets developed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the United States and bluntly asked U.S. President John F. Kennedy if the U.S. was willing to risk New York for Paris. Likewise, there is no guarantee that Uncle Sam would come to immediate protection of Seoul if Los Angeles, for instance, came under the same threat. The U.S. nuclear umbrella cannot be 100-percent reliable as holes can appear depending on domestic political conditions and public opinion.

Although it may not be acceptable immediately, the South Korean government and politicians must build a long-term plan for independent nuclear protection through persistent persuasion on Washington. Seoul could promise that it would abandon the program when Pyongyang dismantles nuclear weapons. Along with the long-term pursuit of nuclear sovereignty, Seoul must consider seeking the NATO-style nuclear sharing, redeployment of U.S. tactical weapons or deployment of U.S. strategic assets on a regular basis, and buildup of nuclear development potentials over the mid- to long-term perspective.

On the day the Swedish and Finnish leaders indicated their openness to nuclear weapons, Lee Jae-myung, head of the majority Democratic Party (DP), met with the U.S. ambassador to Seoul and said the suggestion of redeploying U.S. tactical nukes in South Korea is an irresponsible act with no need for consideration. Earlier, he opposed the extension of South Korea-U.S. military drills against the series of North Korean missile provocations and proposed to dispatch a special envoy to North Korea. The DP remains attached to dialogue with Pyongyang despite a spate of offensive sneers it received from North Korea when it was a governing party. What would a special envoy do in Pyongyang — beseech to Kim to have mercy on South Korea and surrender nuclear weapons?

Only muscle can work on dictatorships. Russia is retreating from Ukraine because of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) the U.S. has supplied to help Ukraine forces. Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot easily move to invade Taiwan, not because he is worried about civilian harm, but because he is not sure of a quick triumph. Kim Jong-un would surrender the idea of using nukes only when he realizes that the action will certainly invite a nuclear counterattack.
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