Tensions on the Korean peninsula between North Korea and virtually every other country in the region continue to escalate in the wake of its possible detonation of a hydrogen bomb this weekend. Now the situation seems poised to escalate even further, with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo investigating the possibility of having the US plant its nukes back on the demilitarized zone’s doorstep.
Per the Washington Post, Song informed a parliamentary committee he told Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis that “It would be good for strategic assets to be sent regularly to the Korean Peninsula and that some South Korean lawmakers and media are strongly pushing for tactical nuclear weapons.”
“The redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is an alternative worth a full review,” Song added, though according to the Post did not mention Mattis’ response.
The US used to have approximately 100 nuclear-armed weapons systems in South Korea but pulled them out in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush approved the Presidential Nuclear Initiative, the Post noted. While both North and South Korea then agreed to keep nuclear weaponry off the peninsula, North Korea claims having US nuclear umbrella protection is a de facto violation of South Korea’s commitment, and its own program is a clear violation.
US and South Korean forces are definitely technically capable of decimating the North Korean military with conventional methods alone, though not without weeks or months of troop deployment and potentially gruesome consequences such as mass shelling of South Korea’s capital, Seoul. Deploying nuclear weapons to the peninsula would cut down the time it would take to retaliate or launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, but it could also dramatically increase the chance of a hasty or mistaken nuclear launch.
According to the Post, US security experts are “almost universally opposed” to moving nukes back onto the peninsula. But this is an era where Donald Trump’s administration has given freewheeling powers to top military commanders and is openly matching North Korea’s threats to wipe each other off the map, so it’s not exactly impossible.
Even if the nukes are not re-deployed, there remain clear signs of preparation for conflict. Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have agreed to remove caps on South Korean missile payloads, while Wired recently reported the latter’s military has been rapidly moving to install more Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) stations, which use kinetic energy (another projectile) to strike down medium-range missiles.
While Moon favors a peaceful solution, the New York Times reported, he is being pressured by both a White House and domestic conservative opposition eager to aggressively respond to North Korean provocations.