The Korean Peninsula was regarded as an atomic-weapon free zone for about 15 years, or from 1991 when President George H.W. Bush ordered all tactical nuclear weapons out of South Korea to 2006 when North Korea ran its first underground atomic bomb test.
Events have moved rapidly since then, but the difference is that the growing nuclear weapons arsenal is on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
That raises the question is it time to re-introduce tactical nuclear weaponry into the South?
The United States deployed tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 to December 1991 in a variety of configurations, yields and delivery systems. At its peak, there were an estimated 950 nuclear warheads in Korea, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Some were artillery shells, some were primitive cruise missile systems such as the Matador, and others were for delivery by fighter-bombers from South Korean air bases such as Osan , south of Seoul, and Kunsan on the west coast.
By the 1990s this inventory had shrunk to around 100 air-delivered bombs and others aboard aircraft carriers. But in 1994 Bush ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from navy vessels save from those carried aboard ballistic missile submarines.
Former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo could say in 1991, “There do not exist any nuclear weapons [in South Korea] whatsoever.” The Korean Peninsula was effectively a nuclear-free zone.
Also, the atomic weapons stationed in South Korea were not necessarily aimed at North Korea, which in the late 1990s was not really considered a nuclear threat. They were part of a larger targeting regime in the Cold War.
Russia’s Vladivostok and environs were in range of the fighter-bombers based in Korea, for example.
Pyongyang responded to this Bush overture by allowing international inspectors to visit its main nuclear research facility at Yongbyon. It was an invitation it withdrew after the next Bush administration accused the North of cheating on a nuclear freeze agreement in 2002.
Conservative voices in South Korea have begun to call for the re-introduction of tactical nukes into the South. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party formally endorsed the idea, although current President Moon Jae-in has denied that he supports such an option at this time.
Some politicians in Japan have argued for reintroducing nukes, too.
The former hawkish Japanese defense minister, Shigeru Ishida, often thought to be a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in September argued that Tokyo should invite the US to base tactical nukes in Japan.
That would violate one of the tenants of Japan’s “Three Nos”, which hold that Japan will not possess, manufacture or allow nuclear weapons into the country (a provision that was overlooked when US aircraft carriers carrying nukes were allowed to dock at Japanese ports.)
Public opinion on the issue seems to differ between South Korea and Japan.
Large percentages of those polled in Japan support remaining non-nuclear, even as they express misgivings about what North Korea is doing. Some polls in South Korea support tactical nukes being reintroduced into the country.
The primary motive for re-introducing nuclear weapons is, of course, enhanced deterrence. But they could also be seen as counters in any future North-South arms limitation talks.
The allies desperately need some bargaining chips since the usual inducements such as signing a peace treaty don’t seem to interest Pyongyang.
The North Koreans look on their nuclear weapons program as a crown jewel, something that they can point to with pride when there isn’t much else to be proud of in that country.
Kim Jong-un has repeatedly said that its nukes are vital to his and his country’s security and are non-negotiable.
It should be clear by now that Pyongyang is indifferent to inducements, unappreciative of any aid during famine years, and largely impervious to economic sanctions. They do not intend to bargain their nukes way for an embassy in Washington.
What’s called for is a two-track diplomatic approach. One track is negotiating a normalizing of relations with Washington and its allies leading to diplomatic relations and a treaty ending the Korean War to replace the existing armistice agreement.
Some would scream “appeasement” or “sellout” over such an approach, in much the same way they cried appeasement with the Agreed Framework in 1995, which allowed the North Koreans to double own on building nuclear weapons.
A second track would be to open nuclear disarmament talks aimed at reducing the number of nukes it controls, possibly ending missile test flights over Japanese territory and other issues.
Kim Jong-un might fancy playing Gorbachev to Donald Trump’s Ronald Reagan. This is where the tactical nukes come in.
It provides the allied side something that it hasn’t had for a long time – a chip that can be bartered away for concessions from the North. The US agrees to remove or destroy one bomb for every bomb the North surrenders or destroys under an international verification regime.
It is difficult to say whether this approach might yield results as it depends on how Kim Jong-un reacts to the spectra of American nukes in full view on his doorstep.
Presumably, an American ballistic missile submarine is prowling even now somewhere submerged in the North Pacific with a full complement of Trident missiles.
But it is literally out-of-sight and out of mind. Nuclear weapons in South Korea would be very much in your face. Deterrent power isn’t the aim; bargaining power is.