Should Friends Let Friends Go Nuclear? Allied Proliferation and American Security
During NPEC's 2018 Public Policy Fellowship Retreat, NPEC's Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow, Zachary Keck, showcased his latest research. This research is part of a project which will be turned into a book later this year, "Should Friends Let Friends Go Nuclear? Allied Proliferation and American Security."
Mar 10, 2018
"When Friends Let Friends Go Nuclear: Blasts from the Past"
Zachary Keck, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
By Zachary Keck and Henry Sokolski
November 6, 2017
hen U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet this week, they are certain to discuss Seoul’s plans to build larger, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The White House has already signaled its willingness to back this effort, and talks about how to do so are underway. These talks were planned despite recent reports of warming ties between Beijing and Seoul. But if the United States is serious about reducing the prospects for war and nuclear missile proliferation, as well as strengthening its alliance with South Korea, the Trump administration cannot hand South Korea a blank check. At the very least, it should put limits on the range of Seoul’s missiles and ensure that the United States retains a say in when they are used.
This would be in line with over 40 years of the alliance’s history. U.S. efforts to limit South Korea’s missile ambitions date back to when Seoul was first caught trying to acquire nuclear weapons, in the 1970s. In exchange for access to basic American missile technology, South Korea agreed not to build any ballistic missiles that could travel more than 110 miles. To help ensure that Seoul did not violate this agreement, the United States conducted inspections of South Korean missile facilities.
As I have been writing about in recent weeks, the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies have been scrambling to respond to the rapid advances in North Korea’s nuclear program. One idea that has been floated is to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea and perhaps even Japan.
To be sure, there have long been lawmakers in South Korea who have been advocating this idea. And, although South Korea’s government continues to oppose such a measure, the idea is been discussed at the highest levels. For instance, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo said that he mentioned to his American counterpart, James Mattis, “that some South Korean lawmakers and media are strongly pushing for [U.S.] tactical nuclear weapons” to be returned to South Korea.
Then, NBC News reported that the Trump administration is “not ruling out” redeploying the tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. A few days later, Sen. John McCain also argued that the United States should “seriously consider” putting nuclear weapons back in South Korea, and a senior delegation of South Korean lawmakers was in Washington this week to ask for them. Not to be outdone, former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba called for his country to start discussing hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, despite Tokyo’s long-standing pledge that it will not possess, manufacture or host nuclear weapons on Japanese territory. This is particularly notable given that Ishiba has been bandied about as a possible successor to Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
I have argued repeatedly that the United States should use the North Korean threat to strengthen its military posture in the Asia-Pacific region. Nonetheless, deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea or Japan is a terrible idea and not for the usual reasons given (Kim Jong-un is not going to surrender his nuclear weapons because America decided not to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula). Instead, there are at least four major reasons why America should not send nuclear weapons to Asia.
The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit,
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.