Saturday, November 27, 2010

Nuke for Nuke

Just before he was forced to resign over the recent North Korean shelling, South Korea’s defense minister, Kim Tea-young, made an intriguing statement when, in answer to a question in parliament he implied that it might be a good idea for Seoul to invite the Americans to reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons into his country.

The minister quickly backtracked, and his deputy was dispatched to say that he didn’t really mean it. Any introduction of nuclear weapons would “cross the line of the denuclearization policy on the Korean peninsula,” he said. That is, of course, as if North Korea hasn’t been crossing numerous lines in its quest for nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War the United States deployed tactical nuclear weapons at American air bases in South Korea such as Osan and Kunsan. My own air force unit, the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing based in Japan, rotated one of its three squadrons of Phantom jets to Korea to stand round –the-clock nuclear alert at Osan AFB.

Soon after the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, President George H.W. Bush ordered their removal from Korean bases and also from aircraft carriers and other U.S. Navy ships that ply the waters off East Asia. So for two and a half decades, East Asia (minus China) was, until the North’s first nuclear test, a nuclear-free zone. Looked at from the point of view of the U.S. and South Korea, it still is.

The former defense minister’s remarks came before the recent North Korean shelling of an offshore South Korean islands that cost him his job, but, more to the point, and far more ominous, after an American was given a personal tour of North Korea’s surprisingly sophisticated gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, the North’s nuclear complex.

The plant is designed, the visitor was told, to enrichment uranium to the minimum needed – about 4-5 percent U-235 – to fuel what it termed an “experimental” light water reactor at the same site. Just what was experimental about it was not revealed except that it must be some kind of an advance on the primitive, 1950s technology on which the North has previously based its weapons program.

The show and tell in Yongbyon and perhaps the more recent off shore shelling may be Pyongyang’s way to getting attention and possibly restarting the six-party talks, which have been suspended for two years. But if that is the case, the U.S. and its allies and friend might think hard about what they want to talk about should the meeting, resume.

For the past fifteen years the negotiations either through six-party format (the parties are North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States) or bilaterally between the U.S. and North Korea have been predicated on the idea that Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons program as a chip to be bargained away in return for aid, normal relations, lifting of sanctions, and other Inducements.

By now it should have become clear that Pyongyang is indifferent to inducements, unappreciative of aid and impervious (with help from China) to sanctions. It is increasingly clear that the country does not see its nuclear program as a bargaining chip and has no intention of giving it away just for an embassy in Washington.

The North wants its nuclear weapons for what they are, a deterrent from invasion and a sign that they are a power to be reckoned with. They see the program as their crown jewel, something that they can point to with pride when there isn’t much else to be proud about. The fact that they are making a quantitative advance in their technology only enhances this.

So if the talks reconvene, what is there to talk about? Will the U.S. and its allies go down the same fruitless path? What inducements can we offer that they haven’t tried before? The North is hurting economically, but it has been hurting for a long time and won’t be allowed to fully collapse by the Chinese.

The U.S. side needs some new bargaining chips, and they could be provided by reintroducing some tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea from their storage vaults in Europe. Such a move could be a game changer, turning the six-party talks into what are in effect nuclear disarmament negotiations. It may even play to the Dear Leader’s ego – Kim Jong-il as Gorbachev and Barack Obama as Reagan.

It is said that North Korea possesses enough separated plutonium to make about 8-12 atomic bombs. So the U.S. should insert perhaps a dozen tactical nukes into the South. Then for every bomb the North turns over we remove (maybe even destroy) one of ours. It doesn’t cost us anything – the weapons are not there now.

It could be fairly argued that there is sufficient power to deter a North Korean invasion represented by ballistic missile submarines. They provide the protection of the “nuclear umbrella” for South Korea as well as Japan. But for most of Korean and Japanese the nuclear umbrella is an abstraction.

Presumably, an American ballistic missile submarine is prowling somewhere submerged in the north Pacific with a full complement of Trident missiles. But it is literally out of sight and thus out of mind for most of the region. Moreover it is beside the point of tactical redeployment. Deterrent power isn’t the aim; bargaining power is.

Such a proposal obviously would go against the grain of many, not the least the Obama administration, which wants to see as one of its legacies a reduction of nuclear weapons, not an expansion. But it may be the only way to persuade the North Koreans to really disarm.


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