Colossally Bad Idea Department: Tactical Nucs in Asia

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute)



An occupational hazard of working on North Korea is that it can make you say and do stupid things. Given that the North Koreans are so diabolically frustrating, the temptation to fly off the handle has to be treated with at least some indulgence. But given that we are entering the high political season, it is important that policy mistakes remain in the realm of victimless crimes; unfortunately, the Republicans on House Armed Services have managed to step over the line.

Last week, the Committee passed out the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, HR4310; press release here.); the bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (56-5).

The bill had a number of large and small North Korea pieces. An overview notes that:

“The committee is increasingly concerned about instability on the Korean peninsula, particularly given anticipated leadership changes within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Therefore, the committee extends the requirement for a detailed report on the military and security developments involving the DPRK in order to more accurately assess the U.S. capabilities required in the western Pacific. The bill also includes a requirement for the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command to provide an annex to this report that identifies any gaps in intelligence, capabilities, capacity, or authority to address threats from DPRK.”

Just what we need; more paperwork for an overtaxed government and military that is facing cuts. And as if PACOM isn’t continually thinking about any “gaps in intelligence, capabilities, capacity or authority” with respect to the complex challenges it faces in the Western Pacific.

In addition, the bill invokes North Korea to provide cautious support for several specific systems, including returning the Airborne Laser aircraft to operational readiness and SBX radar. It also directs the Northern Command to provide Congress a plan to test the national missile defense system against the unauthorized or accidental launch of a ballistic missile not only from Iran the DPRK but Russia and China as well.

Unfortunately , a separate sense-of Congress amendment presses the administration to deploy additional conventional and tactical nuclear weapons to “the Western Pacific region.” The section of the bill is worth quoting in full:

"Sec. 1064



(1) supports steps taken by the President to (A) reinforce the security of the allies of the United States; and (B) strengthen the deterrent capability of the United States against the illegal and increasingly belligerent actions of North Korea; and (2) encourages further steps, including such steps to deploy additional conventional forces of the United States and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region.

REPORT. Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of State, shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report on deploying additional conventional and nuclear forces to the Western Pacific region to ensure the presence of a robust conventional and nuclear capability, including a forward deployed nuclear capability, of the United States in response to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments of North Korea and the other belligerent actions North Korea has made against allies of the United States. The report shall include an evaluation of any bilateral agreements, basing arrangements, and costs that would be involved with such additional deployments."

A little history; the Nuclear Information Project, undertaken in conjunction with the Federation of American Scientists, has an excellent overview. Tactical nuclear weapons were removed from South Korea by President Bush Sr. in 1991 as part of a global strategy to assist a struggling Gorbachev. While the move generated predictable nervousness in South Korea, it set the stage for Roh Tae Woo’s famous speech on December 18, 1991 in which he was able to declare that "as I speak, there do not exist any nuclear weapons whatsoever anywhere in the Republic of Korea." These developments contributed to a particularly intensive period of North-South diplomacy, including the so-called Basic Agreement signed the week before the Roh speech; that document remains the intellectual template of virtually all subsequent engagement efforts. It also set the stage for the stillborn North-South agreement on denuclearization signed in early 1992; by summer, it had fallen apart with the onset of the first nuclear crisis.

Josh Rogin over at Foreign Policy is on top of the politics of the amendment.  The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ). And in case there is any doubt about the partisan nature of the amendment, the vote on it was 32-26, with all Republicans except for Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Chris Gibson (R-NY) voting for it and two North Carolina Democrats crossing over in favor (Mike McIntyre and Larry Kisser).

Where to start? First, the US military is constrained but has not expressed any need or interest in having tactical nuclear weapons in Korea. But the South Korean military did not waste any time in pointing out the obvious; that such weapons are not only not needed but would undermine the political effort—such as it is—to make progress with the North (Yonhap). And the Blue House didn’t hold back either; Hankyoreh has the best English-language coverage on this one, as we might expect, because the left will now have its field day with the issue.

This did not stop the Saenuri right-wing from jumping on the bandawagon in the form of a press conference by recently-announced presidential candidate Chung Mong-jung.  Chung, a scion of the Hyundai family, talked about the need for a proportional response to the North Korean threat, setting in train the predictably rabid KCNA response.

Do we need to even bring up the way in which the North Korean’s are rubbing their hands together in glee? (We are not even going to address the issue of the Chinese and Russian response to this, which will be set in train by the sweeping "Western Pacific" language of the amendment). While achieving no discernible military purpose, the talk of nuclear weapons provides yet further evidence of the North Korean master narrative that the US is out to literally destroy the country; I have personally heard this storyline on multiple occasions from North Koran officials.

And then there is the quite-obvious conflict with our non-proliferation objectives. And, and, and...

We are reminded of the similar gaffe last year by Gary Samore—a generally sane and thoughtful public servant—that had to be walked back by the administration; Duyeon Kim at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has a useful overview of that flap.

"Gratuitous" is an overly-generous judgment; "counterproductive" provides a more apt one-word  summary. Hopefully, the full House and Senate will exercise some oversight.

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