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Rethink tactical nukes

The Blue House defends its sacred principle of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Sept 07,2017
The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes argued by Karl Marx does not only apply to historic evolution. The same law has been proven with North Korea’s nuclear advances. The growth in the quantity of that nuclear arsenal does not just augment the lethality of its threat. It changes the rules of the game.

If North Korea had three or four nuclear weapons, intelligence agencies could locate and remove them. A preventive strike could work. But when the number grows to 10, it’s a different story. It is not easy to locate bombs or nuclear material scattered and deeply hidden. If a military campaign fails to remove them, a retaliatory nuclear attack could ensue and cause millions of human casualties. This is what really stops the United States from taking military action on North Korea, which is believed to possess from 10 to 60 nuclear weapons.

Hydrogen bombs are not just more powerful than atomic bombs. The bombs change from tactical to strategic weapons. A tactical nuclear weapon of 300 kiloton can wipe out a range of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). But a strategic nuclear weapon wields a much more powerful explosive yield and can instantly blow up a much larger area.

If the enemy state has a tactical weapon, a pre-emptive strike could be dared at the risk of partial atomic destruction. But challenging a state armed with strategic nuclear arms is suicidal. This is why experts now deem the only option left for the United States and the rest of the world is to recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and live with it.

Washington is not new to this conundrum. It became hysterical when China was about to test its first nuclear device in 1964. Uncle Sam could not tolerate China having nuclear arms when it still had vivid and bitter memories of fighting the country during the 1950-1953 Korea War. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara threatened to bomb not only Xinjiang — the hotbed of nuclear development — but also Beijing if the country did not stop the test. But China went ahead with tests of atomic and hydrogen bombs and fired off rockets into space to win its status as a nuclear weapons state.

North Korea also claims to have mastered hydrogen bomb production and be close to perfecting intercontinental ballistic missiles. Now that the U.S. has come in range of its nuclear-tipped missiles, it may have to surrender to Pyongyang’s demands of pulling U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula in return for nonaggression. We would have to live with the constant danger of nuclear bombs north of us.

There is no 99.9 percent security when lives are at stake. Our minds cannot be at ease if there is the slightest chance that the U.S. won’t immediately come to our rescue should we come under attack by North Korea. Therefore, we have to protect ourselves and build our own balance of terror. One way is our own independent development of nuclear weapons. The other would be the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Bringing back U.S. tactical weapons would be a realistic option since a South Korea going nuclear would be strongly contested by the international community.

The Blue House is strongly against this idea. The president and his team claim it goes against their sacred principle of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and would undermine the campaign to denuclearize North Korea. They believe the presence of tactical nuclear weapons could upset the path for peaceful unification.

But history tells a different story. During the peak of the Cold War in 1975, the Soviets deployed 650 SS-20 mid-range ballistic missiles in East Germany and across the Eastern Bloc. The West German government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt brought in 96 U.S. Pershing II missiles despite strong internal opposition to establish a balance of terror. West Germany since then became free to pursue a rapprochement policy and in 1990 reaped the fruit to achieve unification.

The German case is living proof that peaceful unification is achievable even with tactical weapons. The West German government argued that having Pershing IIs on the land was better than having scud missiles dropping over their heads. Having tactical weapons near our door is much safer than living in constant fear of North Korea’s nuclear threats.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 6, Page 34

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Nam Jeong-ho