Back To Top

Experts outline risks of nuclear deterrent

They caution that tough measures alone will not solve N. Korean issues

South Korea should exercise great caution in considering a nuclear deterrent against North Korea to avoid a possible arms race and instability in the region, experts advised last week.

Following Pyongyang’s third atomic test on Feb. 12, conservatives here have floated the idea of nuclear armament and the redeployment of U.S. tactical weapons to deal with North Korea’s increasingly asymmetrical weapons systems.

“I think it (nuclear options) is a really bad idea. The problem here is that South Korea starts looking for military responses to what North Korea is doing and the situation could become even more dangerous,” Joel Wit, a senior scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute within the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told The Korea Herald.

“Military steps should be taken, but we have to be very careful about the kinds of steps that are taken. For example, one South Korean military man can talk about launching preemptive attacks against North Korea that can be very destabilizing and could cause an escalation and another Korean War.”

Wit and some 200 nuclear experts and policymakers from around the world came here last week to attend the two-day Asan Nuclear Forum launched by the local private think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Bruce Bennett, another participant in the forum who is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, expressed concern that South Korea’s nuclear armament could spark a regional arms race and lead to a “misjudgment” in the worst case that could trigger armed conflict.

The military expert, in particular, stressed the risks of mobilizing tactical nuclear arms to the peninsula.

“The problem is if you put a tactical nuke in Korea, no matter where you put it, it becomes North Korea’s No.1 target ... Which of your communities wants to become a No.1 nuclear target?” he told The Korea Herald.

If public sentiment does not allow for the redeployment of U.S. tactical weapons, Bennett noted U.S. strategic missiles with nuclear warheads, which could be fired from afar, could be an option. But that option might not be easy either, he pointed out.

“We have to have strategic systems which can approach Korea without this over-flight kind of problem. And the problem with over-flight is the countries you’re flying over might misunderstand, but also, there could be an accident,” he said.

“Even with our really good missiles, 10 percent of them don’t really work ... unexpected glitches. Well, what happens if the unexpected glitch is the third stage (of the rocket) doesn’t fire and the weapon winds up in China?”

Experts largely agreed Seoul and Washington’s policies toward Pyongyang have not been successful over the past four years, stressing the allies should devise a thoughtful combination of sanctions, military measures and diplomacy to deal with the North.

Wit of the SAIS evaluated that both the North Korean policies of U.S. President Barack Obama and former President Lee Myung-bak had failed, underscoring they were not active enough to resolve the nuclear conundrum.

“The policy of strategic patience the U.S. has pursued has clearly not worked... It was an ideological-based approach taken by the Lee government and the U.S. followed South Korea’s lead and unfortunately, that approach was a total failure,” he said.

“The (U.S.) administration was warned by experts at the beginning that it would not work, that it would not change North Korean behavior, that there was a lot of momentum behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and in order to stop that momentum or slow it down, the administration had to be much more active in dealing with this problem. And the administration didn’t listen. So this is the result of that.”

Wit, particularly, stressed the importance of diplomacy in addressing North Korean issues while cautioning against tough measures.

“Tough measures aren’t going to work. That is just the history of this issue. Sanctions and military measures aren’t going to change the direction of North Korean policy,” he said.

“We need to combine those with strong diplomacy that gives North Koreans an escape route, and that hasn’t been done. So, until we do all that, we are going to stay in a cycle of action and reaction, and things will keep getting worse.”

Regarding China’s response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test, Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China might consider harsher measures this time, but its policy toward its impoverished neighbor would not fundamentally change.

“China always has a kind of cycle ― sometimes, China has been harsher than previous times, sometimes, China has become milder toward North Korea,” he told The Korea Herald.

“But we should not suppose China is in a fundamental dilemma. In this period of time, China’s actions toward North Korea are very harsh but we can’t suppose from this that China will abandon North Korea forever.”

By Song Sang-ho (
Korea Herald Youtube