Deterrence pro tem: increase South Korean control of US nuclear assets targeted against North Korea

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

Recent negotiations initiated by South Korea with the United States to obtain acquiescence for South Korean production of nuclear fuel show that South Korea is serious about improving its energy and security independence from the United States. Such moves are a response to growing public opinion pressure in South Korea, which perceives the need for a stronger and more independent counterweight to North Korean threats. Such steps in the fuel production cycle could eventually lead to an independent South Korean nuclear weapons capability (WSJ).

The United States seeks to assure its ally verbally, and with military training exercises, overflights, advanced fighter presence, and naval destroyer movements. But relying on an outside deterrent has become increasingly unnerving to the South Korean public. While the United States and its allies won the Cold War against the Soviets, the United States appears to be overstretched on the global stage from a South Korean perspective. Eleven years of war against terror have not yielded a clear victory. China is ascending. Nuclear proliferation edges forward, with recent proliferators being India, Pakistan, Israel, and as recently as 2006, South Korea’s belligerent neighbor North Korea. Deterrence pro tem would increase deterrence of North Korean belligerence.

The South Korean public’s desire for improved nuclear capabilities is understandable from a strictly realist perspective. They are unsure they can trust the United States, in 10 or 20 years time, to make the sacrifice entailed in defending South Korea against the increased power and influence that China will have. How can the US assure South Korea more than it already has? One option is to more thoroughly integrate the South Korean military into the US military command structure on issues related to North Korea. The South Korean military is already integrated to a large extent, but this could be pushed further.

The US could provide the South Korean military with tactical control of pre-targeted US nuclear weapons for a limited duration of time — what we call deterrence pro tem. The US would maintain physical targeting and control to ensure the weapons were not targeted against a nation other than North Korea. However, the US would provide South Korea with not only permission, but the technical capability to be the final decider on when to pull the trigger. The capability could be leased or assured to South Korea for six months or a year at a time, at which point the capability would be open for renegotiation. Such a nuclear capability would not be proliferation, but it would provide South Korea with a much-improved and more credible deterrent against North Korean threats.

Alternative courses of action are either unpalatable to the US and South Korean publics, or would erode the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Preemptive military action against North Korea could elicit costly counterstrikes, and would likely not be supported by voters in either the US or South Korea. If South Korea starts down the path of fuel production and potential weapons capability, this provides further impetus for other proliferators — most notably Iran. If the international community acquiesces to a nuclear South Korea but forbids Iran, the latter state will have a strengthened argument pointing to a double-standard on nuclear proliferation.

Changing international power structures require new solutions to nuclear deterrence. Increasing South Korean control of deterrence against North Korea is one potential answer.