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US Rules Out Redeploying Tactical Nukes to South Korea

A visitor takes photos toward the North's side at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, Sept. 24, 2021.
A visitor takes photos toward the North's side at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, Sept. 24, 2021.

The United States would not support redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, or a nuclear weapons sharing arrangement with Seoul, according to a U.S. State Department official, after a leading South Korean presidential candidate proposed the move.

“All I can say is, U.S. policy would not support that. And I would be surprised that the people who issued that policy don't know -- or [who] issued those statements -- don't know what U.S. policy is,” said Mark Lambert, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Japan and Korea, in an online forum.

The statement was in response to a question about Yoon Seok-youl, a conservative South Korean presidential candidate, who this week said he would ask Washington to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons or agree to a nuclear-sharing deal if South Korea were threatened by North Korea.

The U.S. withdrew tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes known as battlefield nuclear weapons, from South Korea in the early 1990s. Conservative South Korean politicians have for years called for their redeployment, especially as North Korea has expanded its own nuclear weapons program.

Yoon appears to be the biggest name in South Korean politics to recently make such a call. Opinion polls suggest Yoon, a former prosecutor general, would be locked in a tight race with Lee Jae-myung, a left-leaning provincial governor, for the presidential election in March. Both appear to be frontrunners to become nominees of their parties.

“It is not the first time for a conservative politician to make that promise. But certainly Yoon is the first leading candidate to do it,” said Lee Sang-sin, a political science expert at the Seoul-based Korean Institute for National Unification.

Nearly 70% of South Koreans support the country developing its own nuclear capability, suggested a poll released earlier this month by South Korea’s Asan Institute, a research organization. That finding is broadly in line with other polls on the issue, said Lee, who focuses on public opinion.

“Given the geopolitics and North Korea, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Of course, the public doesn’t understand the complexity and the possible costs of nukes. We have been under the nuclear threat from North Korea for so long, and it’s natural that people want something that makes them feel safe,” he added.

South Korea briefly pursued a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, amid questions at the time about Washington’s long-term commitment to protect Seoul.

More recently, South Korean conservatives have either called for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, or a NATO-style arrangement in which South Koreans would be trained to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Either scenario is unlikely, according to Eric Brewer, a former White House National Security Council official who now focuses on nuclear policy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It would go against the [Biden] administration’s goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy,” Brewer said. “And I don’t think they would view it as necessary to deter North Korea, which I happen to agree with.

“But I think this highlights that these calls for the return of U.S. nuclear weapons will continue. And may get louder, especially as North Korea continues to improve its nuclear arsenal,” he added.

Although South Korea’s conventional forces are vastly superior to the North’s, Seoul does not have nuclear weapons. Instead, it is under the so-called nuclear umbrella of the U.S., which has nuclear-capable forces in the wider region.

Some in South Korea are worried about long-term overreliance on U.S. protection, especially after experiencing former President Donald Trump's “America First” foreign policy (()), which strained the alliance.

“I understand those concerns and navigating them is going to be a challenge for the United States and South Korea,” said Brewer, who thinks the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons would be unhelpful.

“But I think for those arguing for this in South Korea, it’s not about deterrence, but about assurance. It is psychological. It’s about the U.S. providing an unambiguous signal that the U.S. has South Korea’s back, and keeping the U.S. closely tied to the peninsula,” he said.

The United States is not the only country opposed to redeploying nuclear weapons to South Korea. Asked about Yoon’s nuclear weapons proposal, a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a briefing Thursday that such calls are "irresponsible."