The policy debate has rapidly evolved over the past few weeks in South Korea in the aftermath of North Korea’s pronouncement on first-use nuclear doctrine and explicit threats to strike targets in South Korean territory with tactical battlefield nuclear weapons.
In Seoul, a wide range of options -- which include the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons, a NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangement and South Korea’s nuclear weapons acquisition -- have been referred to as countermeasures against North Korea’s relentless pursuit to develop strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons.
The Yoon Suk-yeol government has reiterated that the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula and a NATO-style nuclear sharing agreement are currently off the table. But heated debate persists in Seoul.
The former South Korean military leaders on Tuesday underscored that South Korea and the US should now put all the viable options -- including South Korea’s development of nuclear weapons -- on the table. The remarks were made during the “Korea-US Alliance Peace Conference” held in Seoul.
The former commanders publicly endorsed the idea of South Korea strategically pushing for nuclear latency, which generally refers to the capability to build nuclear weapons, to lower the threshold to become a nuclear power.
“My view is that it is imperative for the Republic of Korea to enhance its latent capability for nuclear armament in a way to deter North Korea’s nuclear (threats) although we are not able to currently possess nuclear weapons,” retired Gen. Jung Seung-jo, former chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the event. He referred to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.
But Jung also elucidated that the South Korean military should reinforce its independent capabilities for deterrence and defense and advance homegrown three-axis defense systems, while concurrently seeking to enhance the viability of the US extended deterrence.
Seoul should push for ‘nuclear latency’
Echoing the view, retired Gen. Leem Ho-young, former deputy commander of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command, said South Korea “should consider all the options when coming up with countermeasures while strengthening the South Korea-US alliance.”
But Leem pointed out that there is a “slight temperature difference between South Korea and the US” in their perception of North Korean threats, referring to a narrow gap between the allies.
Leem underscored that North Korea has posed “direct and existential missile and nuclear threats” to the survival of South Korea, elucidating that South Korea sees such threats as “extremely imminent.”
Leem went on to say that South Korea should live up to US expectations such as expanding the role of the South Korea-US alliance beyond the Korean Peninsula. But at the same time, the US should consider South Korea’s demands and position.
Leem proposed various options that South Korea would like to take to counter North Korea.
The most feasible option is to enhance the viability of the US extended deterrence through various channels, including the deployment of US strategic assets regularly.
But Leem also called for the US to consider redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons -- which were withdrawn in 1991 -- on the Korean Peninsula and adopt NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangements as potential countermeasures, citing dismal prospects for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
As Jung pointed out, Leem raised the necessity for South Korea to develop the technology and resources required to become a nascent nuclear state. South Korea reportedly has a lower level of nuclear latency than Japan, according to research provided by the Seoul-based Asia Pacific Leadership Network.
“In my opinion, it is high time for South Korea and the US to put every option, including the one of shortening (South Korea’s) nuclear breakout time, on the table and discuss and come up with countermeasures based on the spirit of the alliance,” Leem said.
US extended deterrence ‘sufficient’
But retired US Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who assumed duties as commander of the US European Command and as commander of the US Force Korea, opposed the idea of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons or adopting a NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangement.
Scaparrotti said the extended deterrence that the US commits to provide is “sufficient” to counter and deter North Korea, underscoring that the Asia-Pacific region and Europe are in a different ballgame.
“First of all, I won’t get into the details, but it’s my particular belief here that the extended deterrence is exactly what’s needed,” Scaparrotti said. “Secondly, the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, in my personal opinion, might actually raise the risk of the Korean Peninsula as opposed to reduce that risk or be a greater deterrent.”
Scaparrotti underlined that the “extended deterrence provided by the United States is absolutely rock-solid.”
“It’s safe, it’s secure and it’s up to the task. It is designed with our allies to ensure that we deter the use of nuclear weapons. But in fact, we deter a strategic conflict of that nature.”
But Scaparrotti suggested that the US and South Korea could launch a NATO-style Nuclear Planning Group to step up their coordination over nuclear-related issues and enhance South Korea’s engagement in the process to enhance the viability of the US extended deterrence.
“It’s a step toward greater detail. It’s a step toward greater inclusion with ROK senior officials and the ROK military so that they fully understand the capability, the processes, the planning, and so on,” Scaparrotti said.
The suggestion is in line with the Yoon government’s road map. South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup on Monday said the government seeks to maximize South Korea’s engagement and contribution in multistage procedures, including information sharing, training and exercises related to nuclear threats.
Scaparrotti added that Seoul and Washington could discuss how to improve the message of deterrence to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to affect his decision-making process at the consultative body.
“We’re trying to affect … his decision-making that whatever he might think about doing would inflict a greater cost than any benefit that he can think about.”
The Biden administration has also dismissed the idea of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula.
The US Department of Defense on Tuesday indirectly rejected the option of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, underscoring the US’ commitment to provide extended deterrence to allies.
“We’ll continue to work closely with them to ensure that there's a strong deterrent so that we cannot get to the point of any type of armed conflict,” the Pentagon press secretary, US Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, told a press briefing.
“We have the forces, we have the capabilities to, again, secure US and allied interests, and we'll continue to do that,” Ryder said when asked if the US has capabilities to simultaneously deter threats from Russia, as well as in China and North Korea.