The Yoon government has recently reaffirmed its endorsement of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula as heated debates have erupted in Seoul over how to counter North Korea’s escalating threats to fire tactical nuclear arms at South Korean targets.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry “has not yet discussed and reviewed” nuclear armament, the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangements, Moon Hong-sik, the ministry's acting spokesperson, said Tuesday during a press briefing.
Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup also reiterated that the Yoon government “has maintained the policy of pursuing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” when asked about the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons during the parliamentary inspection of his agency on Monday.
The defense chief said the ultimate goal is to enhance the viability of the US extended deterrence “to the maximum,” underscoring that South Korea has to come up with various measures to that end.
Lee said the Yoon government seeks to maximize South Korea’s engagement and contribution in multistage procedures -- which include information sharing, training and exercises related to nuclear threats -- to enhance the alliance’s deterrence and readiness against North Korean threats.
Debates over the redeployment of US tactical weapons on the Korean Peninsula have emerged in South Korea after North Korean state media outspokenly said this month that the flurry of ballistic missile launches from Sept. 25 to Oct. 9 aimed to simulate striking targets in South Korea with tactical battlefield nuclear weapons.
The growing possibility of North Korea’s seventh nuclear test has generated a whirlwind of discussions on South Korea’s military countermeasures against mounting nuclear threats from North Korea. The South Korean and US governments have said North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test.
Return to US extended deterrence
South Korea’s Unification Minister Kwon Young-se clarified that the Yoon government “does not consent” to the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons during the inspection by the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on Monday.
Kwon, a four-term lawmaker of the ruling People Power Party, said party opinion could be divided on the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons. But Kwon viewed that South Korea’s “nuclear armament, the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear sharing arrangements do not represent the ruling party’s official stance.”
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin also opposed a redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons.
“My view is that the most important way to preserve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is to strengthen the viability of the (US) extended deterrence based on close alliance and coordination between South Korea and the US,” Park told lawmakers during the parliamentary audit.
Park explained that there has been no discussion on the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons and NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangements between South Korea and the US at the current stage.
Park also agreed that South Korea’s nuclear armament and redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons could lead to legitimizing North Korea’s possession of nuclear arsenals, saying that the options could “place burdens” on South Korea.
S. Korea, US on same page?
President Yoon Suk-yeol’s ambiguous statement on the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons has added fuel to the debate.
Yoon said on Oct. 11 that he is “weighing (the option) while listening attentively to various options from the South Korean and US governments and the public” when asked about the emerging debate on the redeployment.
But the Yoon government seems to have decided its position on the matter to get on the same page with the US, after the Biden administration directly dismissed the idea.
In particular, US Ambassador to South Korea Philip Goldberg highlighted that the focus should be ridding the world of nuclear weapons when asked about his opinion on the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula during a news conference on Oct. 18.
Goldberg underscored the importance of the US extended deterrence in countering North Korean threats, reiterating Yoon’s public commitment to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT.
“Extended deterrence means the protections provided by the United States in all areas, including nuclear,” he said. “We have this ironclad commitment. Nobody should have any doubt about that.”
The Biden administration has reiterated its goal of achieving complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and extended its deterrence commitment to South Korea in response to emerging debates on the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula.
The US Department of Defense indirectly rejected the option of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula. Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said during a press briefing on Oct. 20 that the US has a significant US force presence on the peninsula and conducts regular exercises with South Korean and other allies in the region.
“Our focus will continue to be on working together with the Republic of Korea and with our allies and partners in the region to preserve not only free and open Indo-Pacific, but also regional stability and security,” Ryder said.