In Washington we trust?

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In Washington we trust?

Nam Jeong-ho

The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

At the Kwanhun Club Forum on Oct. 18, an unusual development took place. U.S. Ambassador to Korea Philip Goldberg dismissed arguments from the presidential office and the People Power Party (PPP) for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea to counter the North’s nuclear threats. “All this talk about tactical nuclear weapons, whether it comes from Putin or from Kim Jong-un, is irresponsible and dangerous and the escalation of those kinds of threats or speculation I don’t think helps the situation,” he said.

After a barrage of missile launches by North Korea, many senior members of the PPP argued that the South should have tactical nukes. Rep. Chung Jin-suk, interim leader of the PPP, Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, and former and current lawmakers Yoo Seung-min and Cho Kyung-tae have made such arguments. National security aides of the presidential office are also reviewing the possibility of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons or sharing U.S. nukes. Even President Yoon Suk-yeol did not rule out the possibility of nuclear redeployment by saying, “I am listening to various opinions in South Korea and the United States about the redeployment.”

The possibility was being seriously considered by the administration and senior politicians of the world’s 10th largest economy. But the ambassador of its main ally called the idea “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” That is tremendous disrespect. After the U.S. State Department apparently was alarmed by the seriousness of the situation, a senior official tried to calm the turbulence by saying the ambassador’s remarks were misrepresented.

Is the argument for redeployment of tactical nukes really irresponsible? It is directly related to the question of whether the South can trust America’s extended deterrence. The U.S. administration is particularly sensitive about a preemptive use of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. Last November, it attempted to adopt the “No First Use” policy, in which the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons unless the enemy uses it first, but the attempt failed due to allies’ protests. The latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) issued at the end of last month also stresses the risks of nuclear proliferation. In this larger picture, redeployment of tactical nukes on the Korean Peninsula would be unacceptable. Therefore, the United States repeatedly stresses that it will retaliate against any attacks on South Korea, even by using nuclear weapons so that the South doesn’t have to worry about it.

And yet, many experts in South Korea are uneasy about that promise. For extended deterrence to function properly, there are three key factors. America must have the ability and will to offer the extended deterrence and the neighbors must trust it. There is no doubt about the U.S. ability to offer extended deterrence since it is the world’s strongest military power. But its will is somewhat questionable because the U.S. has acted indifferently until now.

The Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (Edscg) between Seoul and Washington was established in 2016. Over the past three years, only three meetings, including one in October, took place. The two sides had met nearly once every two years. One of the participants confessed about the meeting. “When we ask how the United States will defend South Korea, they say they cannot offer details because they are classified military secrets,” he said. “But they say that we must stop worrying and trust them.” When we do not know the substance of extended deterrence, how can we put our trust in it?

A larger concern comes two years later. The Biden administration’s pledge of extended deterrence seems genuine, but we are not sure it will work properly when a new administration arrives in two years. Currently, the popularity of the Democratic Party is lower than that of the Republican Party. In a CNN poll announced on Nov. 3 ahead of the Nov. 8 mid-term elections, 47 percent of the voters said they will cast ballots for the Democratic Party candidates while 51 percent said they will vote for the Republican Party. Furthermore, as economic recession is expected due to rapid interest rate hikes, a Republican candidate will have the high ground in the 2024 presidential election.

Among the Republican presidential prospects, former President Donald Trump is the frontrunner. Over 50 percent of voters support him. When he was in office, he demanded Seoul pay more for the U.S. deployment of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula. A runner-up is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Although his Korean Peninsula policy is yet to be known, he will likely follow Trump’s “America First” policy, since his nickname is “Trump 2.0.” That means he will likely be passive about offering extended deterrence. No wonder the Yoon administration and PPP lawmakers are floating the ideas of redeploying tactical nukes. To quiet the South’s argument that it must arm itself with nukes, the Biden administration must convince its ally of the substance of extended deterrence.
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