The National Defense University, an institution funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, has published a journal article suggesting Washington should share its nuclear tactical missiles with Japan and South Korea to deter North Korea’s growing nuclear threat to East Asia and the U.S.
“The United States should strongly consider … sharing of nonstrategic nuclear capabilities during times of crisis with select Asia-Pacific partners, specially Japan and the Republic of Korea,” according to “Twenty-First Century Nuclear Deterrence,” published by the university in the current issue of Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ). The Republic of Korea is the official name for South Korea.
Publication guidelines on the university’s site say “The views expressed by this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”
Sharing American nuclear capabilities with Japan and South Korea would involve deploying its nuclear weapons in the territories of its two allies in East Asia so that the weapons can be used in such time as a nuclear war, as the U.S. does with five member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO), according to the article.
Japan and South Korea are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella that promises defense against threats. The U.S. maintains military bases in both countries, which are currently embroiled in a trade dispute colored by historical animosities.
The article’s release on July 25 coincided with North Korea’s launch of two short-range missiles. Then, early Wednesday local time, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that North Korea launched multiple unidentified projectiles off the east coast of its Hodo Peninsula.
The four authors, who serve in the U.S. army, navy, and air force, suggest U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Japan and South Korea would be used for exigent purposes during war but would mainly serve as an extended deterrence against North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons in peacetime, effectively preventing it from launching a nuclear attack.
The article suggests American nuclear sharing with Japan and South Korea could be undertaken in a manner similar to an agreement the U.S. signed with five NATO member states.
Currently, the U.S. shares approximately 180 tactical nuclear weapons such as B61 nuclear bombs with Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
NATO is a multilateral alliance now composed of 29 member-states from North America and Europe established in 1949 by 12 countries to serve as a collective defense against emerging threats in the region.
American nuclear weapons have been deployed to the five NATO countries since the mid-1950s in an arrangement known as nuclear sharing. Nuclear sharing allows these countries without nuclear weapons to use American deployed nuclear weapons in case of war at which time the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be disabled.
The NPT, which entered into force in 1970, prohibits signatory states from transferring and accepting direct and indirect control of nuclear weapons.
The JFQ article came out as the process of denuclearization diplomacy with Pyongyang, stalled since the Hanoi summit in February, has started to inch forward.
In June, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met for an impromptu summit at the inter-Korean border in June where they agreed to resume denuclearization efforts. North Korea has been reluctant to engage in the working-level negotiations since Hanoi where Washington rejected Pyongyang’s demand for sanctions lift.
The JFQ authors highlighted that the U.S. may face “difficulties in shaping [North Korean] behavior” if it does not give up its nuclear program.
“If left unchecked, North Korea will continue to threaten the East Asian region and perhaps one day the United States itself,” they noted.
North Korea threat
On June 25, North Korea fired what South Korea called new types of short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, the body of water between the Korean peninsula and Japan, rattling the East Asian countries.
The next day, Pyongyang said it had tested a new type of “tactical guided weapon” intended to send a “solemn warning” to South Korea to end its joint military exercises with the U.S.
North Korea said the weapons it tested had “rapid anti-firepower capability” and “low altitude gliding and leaping flight orbit…which would be hard to intercept.”
In May, North Korea tested three short-range missiles off its east coast that experts considered to be similar to a Russian Iskander, a nuclear loadable short-range ballistic missile.
The article said, “Considering North Korea’s history of aggressive nuclear rhetoric and recent missile tests,” sharing U.S. nuclear weapons with its regional allies “would provide renewed physical evidence of U.S. resolve.”
The article also stated that nuclear sharing with Japan and South Korea will strengthen a “military partnership through joint-regional exercises” necessary to deter North Korea.
However, according to Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, the time may not be ripe for the U.S. to propose nuclear sharing with Seoul and Tokyo because of an on-going trade row between the two.
“My sense is that [in] both South Korea and Japan, there is very little political support for such a step at this time,” said Samore, currently senior fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Korea Project. “It could change, but, for now, I think it would be very controversial.”
Seoul and Tokyo have been involved in a trade dispute after Japan placed export restrictions on three high-tech items South Korean companies use to manufacture parts used in smart phones and other high-tech devices. The trade dispute is widely seen as rooted in Korean anger at Japan for decades of colonization and occupation from 1910 until Japan’s 1945 surrender to the U.S. to end World War II. During that period, many Japanese companies used Korean forced labor.
Boycotts against Japanese-made products have been widespread in Seoul, and Japan has rejected Seoul’s call for talks to resolve the dispute.
Samore said, “There may come a time when the domestic politics in South Korea and Japan have changed especially when North Korea continues to maintain and advance nuclear weapons and (a) ballistic missile program.” He added, “And then at that point it would make more sense.”