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[Editorial] Stronger deterrent

Seoul needs to be open to proposed sharing of US nonstrategic nuclear arms

North Korea has recently sent conflicting messages to South Korea and the US via its renewed provocative acts.

The North claimed Thursday that it had tested a new rocket system in launches conducted the previous day, which came less than a week after it fired two short-range ballistic missiles from its east coast into the East Sea in its first provocation since May.

After last week’s missile firings, North Korea’s state media said that the launches, supervised by the recalcitrant regime’s leader Kim Jong-un, were intended to send a “solemn” warning to the South over its plan to conduct joint military drills with the US this month and its purchase of advanced fighter jets from the ally.

The relatively short ranges and low altitudes of the North’s recent test-firings clearly show that they were aimed at enhancing its capability for striking targets in the South.

A pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Japan said Wednesday that North Korea appears to have decided to limit the operational waters of a newly built submarine to the East Sea in consideration of a possible resumption of nuclear talks with the US.

Last week, the North’s state news agency released an undated photo of Kim inspecting the new submarine, which it said would “carry out its duty in the operational waters of the East Sea.”

The Japan-based Choson Sinbo said the mention of the submarine’s deployment location is noteworthy, adding that it was a “message” sent by Pyongyang to Washington with the resumption of their negotiations in mind.

“Whatever weapons are loaded on the new submarine, the US will for now be able to heave a sigh of relief,” as its operational waters are limited to the East Sea, the newspaper said.

North Korea’s new submarine, the deployment of which is close, appears to be capable of carrying three submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Seoul’s Defense Ministry was quoted by a lawmaker as saying in a closed-door briefing to members of the parliamentary intelligence committee.

Seoul and Washington have struck somewhat different notes in their responses to the latest provocations by Pyongyang.

In his toughest rhetoric since assuming office last year, South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo warned Wednesday that North Korea should be regarded as an “enemy” if it threatened and provoked the South.

Meanwhile, a US State Department spokesperson told a South Korean news agency that Washington was aware of reports of the North’s latest missile firings and would continue to monitor the situation. US President Donald Trump last week dismissed missiles fired by Pyongyang as “smaller ones” that many countries test.

North Korea’s recent provocations come as Washington seeks to restart working-level talks with Pyongyang on dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile programs under an agreement reached between Trump and Kim when they met at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom in June.

It now seems to be no exaggerated concern that South Korea would be at the mercy of Kim’s nuclear-armed regime if Trump settled for a deal to significantly ease sanctions on the North in exchange for a partial dismantling of its weapons programs.

In the face of this worrying possibility, Seoul needs to react more positively to a proposal made in a recent article of a US National Defense University periodical that Washington strongly consider the “custodial” sharing of its nonstrategic nuclear capabilities with South Korea and Japan during times of crisis. The nonstrategic nuclear capabilities apparently refer to short-range tactical weapons designed to impact a limited battle zone.

The article, written by several US military personnel, noted that the proposed sharing of the nonstrategic arms would have an added deterrent effect on Pyongyang, but “the greatest advantage would be the increased pressure put on China to constrain North Korea’s aggression.”

Officials in President Moon Jae-in’s administration have said Seoul is not considering the concept that would enable it to share control of US nuclear arms in a way that some members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have done.

The Moon government has also opposed the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons that have been pulled out of South Korea in 1991.

It says the move would undermine Seoul’s long-held push for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and could intensify a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia.

But if Seoul held a sort of nuclear cards instead of being left empty-handed, it would rather help move forward denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.

More fundamentally, it is necessary to make preparations for a possible failure in stalled efforts to denuclearize the North Korean regime.