Calls are growing for South Korea to map out a more effective, stronger deterrence strategy against North Korea after it carried out a third nuclear test on Tuesday in defiance of international warnings.
Military strategists argue Seoul should devise a fresh military approach to fend off the threat such as developing its nuclear deterrence capability and strategic, asymmetrical weapons systems including special operations forces and stealth combat aircraft.
But others say Seoul should maintain its denuclearization policy and strengthen international cooperation based on the robust South Korea-U.S. alliance, suggesting that it could consider delaying the transfer of wartime operational control slated for December 2015.
As for a military policy, some said that Seoul could consider asking the U.S. to redeploy its tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula to “balance nuclear power.” They stressed that its ballistic missile capability coupled with its technology to miniaturize nuclear payloads has now become a real threat to security on the peninsula and beyond.
They also suggested that with the U.S.’ tactical nuclear arms, Seoul and Washington could propose to the North mutual nuclear arms reductions given that international diplomatic methods have borne little fruit.
“Theoretically, the only thing that can deter or block nuclear weapons is nuclear weapons,” said Lee Choon-kun, security expert at the Korea Economic Research Institute.
“Although the U.S.’ Barack Obama administration champions the vision of a nuclear-free world, South Korea has a different security environment exposed to a constant nuclear threat from the North. Seoul can ask for the redeployment of tactical nukes on the grounds that it would not build its own nuclear arsenal.”
While agreeing to the need to craft a new deterrence strategy, some security experts said disadvantages of bringing nuclear weapons to the South would outweigh the advantages. They cautioned that Seoul could face strong resistance, and not only from the international community, which has long upheld the non-proliferation principle for world peace.
“Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear arms is driven by political motivations to raise its bargaining power. It is a last-resort political weapon. Thus, I am skeptical about the attempt to resolve a political issue through a military approach such as a preemptive strike,” said Kim Ho-sup, international politics professor at Chung-Ang University.
“Seoul has long committed itself to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has played a pivotal role to keep world peace. Backing out of it would shake the country’s primary diplomatic policy line as well as the roots of the Korea-U.S. alliance.”
Huh Moon-young, a senior fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, echoed his view, pointing out that Seoul should devise a more long-sighted strategy rather than focusing on a short-term response to the North’s provocation.
“We should make a tactical, short-term response such as developing nuclear weapons just because the North has some. We should devise a grand strategy that could serve the regional efforts for peace,” he said.
“We should once again clarify our stance for peninsular denuclearization and move in close cooperation with the U.S. and China over the North’s nuclear issue. But that does not mean we don’t pay attention to bolstering our defense capabilities. We should at the same time focus on enhancing our military power.”
If nuclear weapons are not an appropriate option for Seoul, it needs to develop asymmetrical capabilities and more sophisticated conventional weapons to fend off the North’s nuclear threats, experts said.
The South can bolster its special operations forces that can be preeminently deployed to the North to eliminate or neutralize the enemy’s strategic arms such as weapons of mass destruction and key command structures.
Seoul should also bolster its early warning and intelligence capabilities, and introduce strategic weapons such as stealth combat aircraft, unmanned drones or guided cruise missiles and bunker-busters to destroy key military bases including underground sites where the North’s leadership could hide in case of an emergency or arsenals are stored.
At the bilateral Extended Deterrence Policy Committee, Seoul and Washington have discussed a “tailored deterrence strategy.” The allies are expected to craft a concrete deterrence plan by the end of this year, Seoul officials said. The latest nuclear test is expected to affect the allies’ discussion over the strategy.
By Song Sang-ho