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[Editorial] Nukes in the South?

It is absurd that South Korea and the United States should bind themselves to “the principle of denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula which was declared with North Korea 20 years ago while the North has conducted nuclear tests twice and threatens the South with a nuclear holocaust on a daily basis.

Calls for the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea become louder of late, mainly in the conservative political quarters agitated by Pyongyang’s nuclear-backed threats. But Seoul reiterates that the government remains committed to the inter-Korean Denuclearization Declaration signed in 1991.

The pact, which was concluded along with a basic agreement with the North on inter-Korean reconciliation, economic cooperation and exchanges, bans the two Koreas from pursuing tests, production, possession, entry, deployment and use of nuclear weapons. The George Bush Sr. administration completed withdrawing the entire nuclear arsenal from South Korea by mid-December 1991. It was from that point of time on that North Korea pushed its nuclear development program in earnest leading to a nuclear crisis in 1994 and the ensuing stalemate that continues until today.

The question of reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea has been raised occasionally ― when South Korea negotiated with the United States for its takeover of wartime operational control and when the North conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Pyongyang’s disclosure of its advanced uranium enrichment plant last year added urgency to the demand for tactical nuclear arms here. Last November, then-Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the National Assembly that the government would “study” redeployment of nuclear arms. Pentagon said there were “no immediate plans” to do so.

Proponents of the tactical nuclear arms redeployment seem to be encouraged by a Seoul newspaper report from Washington quoting the White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction as saying that the U.S. would agree to the idea of if South Korea made an official request. Gary Samore reportedly opined as his personal view that President Obama would not find it contradicting his global nonproliferation commitment as redeployed tactical weapons would be withdrawn upon the settlement of denuclearization negotiations.

Time has come for officials of the two allies to start serious discussion on the issue through the bilateral Extended Deterrence Committee or higher channels, as there are more than enough justifications. Keeping tactical nuclear weapons here would reduce security misgivings here ― or at least shut up Pyongyang’s blackmailing ― and increase negotiating power.

What may be recommended under the current circumstances is for the allied Korean and U.S. authorities to adopt a principle of flexibility instead of unilaterally adhering to the now meaningless denuclearization declaration. It will be desirable to go back to the neither-confirm-nor-deny practice while considering redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons in accordance with future military needs.