The Obama administration recently reaffirmed its "support of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula." According to White House National Security Council (NSC) deputy spokesman Robert Jensen, "Tactical nuclear weapons are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea" and the administration has "no plan or intention to return them." This was in response to remarks by Gary Samore, White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, who expressed his personal opinion: "If South Korea, a U.S. ally, were to feel threatened by North Korea’s nuclear development and request that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons be redeployed, the United States would naturally agree to it." Samore’s opinion was rendered in the aftermath of remarks made by senior members of the ruling Grand National Party, who argued that the U.S. should reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons in the South to protect the country against a military threat from the North.
To begin, that the United States continues to insist that the Korean peninsula be free of nuclear weapons is a bit absurd. It should be abundantly clear by now that the North Koreans aren’t terribly interested in cooperating. An eight-year diplomatic effort to end North Korea’s nuclear program has gone nowhere. The odds of Pyongyang renouncing its nuclear status are pretty much slim and none – and none just caught the last train to Albuquerque.
So what are some options?
According to Robert Eichorn, the State Department’s special advisor for non-proliferation and arms control, "The United States has a range of nuclear delivery capabilities offshore that can provide a very strong extended deterrent to North Korea without the need for nuclear weapons belonging to the United States actually on South Korean soil." Over the years, the United States deterred the likes of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mao Zedong. So if the United States could deter both the Soviet Union and China (both with much larger nuclear arsenals than North Korea), certainly it can deter North Korea under Kim Jong-il and whoever succeeds the "Dear Leader" (many speculate it will be his youngest son, Jong Un).
But while direct deterrence may work, does it make sense for the U.S. to have a policy of extended deterrence to guarantee South Korea’s security? Realistically, should (and if push came to shove, would) the U.S. risk Los Angeles (even though North Korea does not currently possess the long-range capability to attack the United States) to save Seoul? Such a "threat" may not be credible or real.
And more bluntly: Why does the United States need to guarantee South Korea’s security at all? The hard truth is that U.S. security does not depend on South Korea’s security (which is not the same thing as saying that the United States doesn’t care about South Korea).
Although North Korea has a large army (over 1 million active duty) and nuclear weapons, it has virtually no economy to speak of. By comparison, South Korea’s economy is the 15th largest in the world (almost $1 trillion) and eclipses North Korea’s by more than 30-to-1. So they can afford to pay for their own security,
And part of that security equation should be letting the South Koreans decide for themselves about the best way to counter-balance North Korea’s nuclear capability – including the option of South Korea building it’s own nuclear deterrent (which is not the United States giving South Korea nukes or deploying U.S. nuclear weapons on South Korean soil). According to one South Korean lawmaker who sits on the National Defense Committee, "We need our own nuclear sovereignty. The only way we can deter or negotiate or even dismantle North Korean nuclear weapons is when we have nuclear capability."
To be sure, the idea of South Korea having its own (small) nuclear arsenal runs counter to the notion the world would be a better place with fewer nuclear weapons and fewer nuclear-armed countries. But which is better (even if it’s not "best")? North Korea with a nuclear monopoly that looms over South Korea and forces the United States to risk its own security to defend South Korea? Or an empowered South Korea capable of defending itself (including it’s own nukes to deter the North)?