Korea Nuclear Escalation Risks Intensify
The Korean Peninsula has become ground zero for nuclear weapons proliferation. The North Korean government of Kim Jung-un has precipitously moved to expand his nation’s nuclear capability, testing and deploying a wide-range of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. This includes some capable of reaching targets in the Continental US. South Korea has made noises about developing its own nuclear capability, prompting the US to increase its own nuclear posture in the region. The result is a dangerous game of nuclear escalation between the US and North Korea, which leaves the region, and the world, facing elevated risk of nuclear conflict.
A recent tour by senior naval officers from Japan and South Korea of the USS Maine, a US Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, off the coat of Guam was the latest manifestation of a broader commitment by Washington to its two most important Pacific allies. It aimed to show that the US nuclear umbrella protecting them from the threat of nuclear attack by potential regional threats, including North Korea, China and Russia, is both genuine and robust. The tour comes on the heels of last month’s visit by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to the White House, where US President Joe Biden reaffirmed an “iron clad” commitment to come to the defense of South Korea in the event of any attack by North Korea.
The intensification of US-South Korean joint military exercises that have occurred since Biden took office in early 2022 has coincided with a spate of ballistic missile tests by North Korea. These tests, combined with statements by North Korea, including its leader, Kim, on the realignment of its nuclear doctrine — away from pure deterrence to one that permits pre-emption in case of an imminent threat — have sent shock waves through South Korea and Japan. These countries are the most prominent likely targets of any nuclear attack by North Korea. The tour of the USS Maine was meant to reassure both important US allies that it was serious of the extent of its commitment to their collective defense.
On paper, the US commitment has all the elements one would expect. This includes plans for bilateral consultations at a presidential level in the event of any North Korean nuclear attack, the establishment of a nuclear consultative group on the establishment of a joint nuclear posture, and the initiation of joint nuclear training exercises for the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea in the case of a nuclear attack. These measures are intended to mollify a nervous South Korean president who, shortly after taking office earlier this year, announced that South Korea might consider developing its own independent nuclear deterrent. President Yoon also stated that the US should redeploy nuclear weapons on South Korean soil. US tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991.
Limits of Deterrence
The Biden administration viewed such statements with alarm, since a South Korean nuclear weapons program would fly in the face of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that serves as the foundation of US nonproliferation policy. The redeployment of US nuclear weapons to South Korea would be seen as provocative by both China and Russia. By giving South Korea a seat at the table of nuclear decision-making, the Biden administration seeks to engender confidence in the country’s leadership that the US will be ready to respond decisively to any North Korean nuclear attack — even though any nuclear response would be under full US operational control.
It is this last fact that underscores the fragility of the US commitment. Biden has clearly stated that if North Korea were to initiate a nuclear attack on either South Korea or Japan, it would “cease to exist,” implying a US nuclear response. However, the reality is that such a posture invites a North Korean nuclear attack against not only regional US territories such as Guam or Hawaii, but also the Continental US. North Korea has recently tested two types of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the liquid-fueled Hwasong-17 and the solid-fuel Hwasong-18, both of which can reach any target in the Continental US. Moreover, the Hwasong-18, which is road-mobile, provides North Korea with a potentially survivable nuclear retaliation capability. If push comes to shove, it is unknown whether a US president would be willing to put major US cities and tens of millions of US lives at risk over either South Korea or Japan.
But there is a clue to the seriousness of the US intent in the decision to base an Ohio-class nuclear submarine in South Korea starting sometime this summer. On the surface, this commitment looks impressive. The submarine — equipped with 20 Trident nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, each armed with up to four nuclear warheads — possesses more than enough firepower to make good on Biden’s promise to destroy North Korea in the event of a nuclear attack by Pyongyang on South Korea or Japan.
But the reality is that basing an Ohio-class submarine in South Korea is the worst-possible operational profile for such a weapons system. While at port, the submarine is a sitting duck for any North Korean pre-emptive attack, nuclear or otherwise, thereby creating predictable windows of vulnerability. Moreover, the act of sending such a submarine to sea could become, in itself, an act of provocation. Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are at their doctrinal best when operating fully in stealth, thousands of miles away from any potential target. Basing one at a South Korean port is operationally unsound, which suggests the move is more a propaganda exercise than genuine nuclear muscle-flexing. In short, the deployment of a US ballistic missile submarine to South Korea is little more than a bluff, one that the US and South Korea hope North Korea will never call.
The deterioration of the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula since the Biden administration took office is undeniable. Under former President Donald Trump, the US made a concerted effort at denuclearizing North Korea. While those efforts ultimately failed, North Korea’s leader, Kim, left the door open to the possibility of resuming the denuclearization talks. The Biden administration, however, has made no concerted effort in this regard, leading to a dangerous game of escalation that finds both sides leaning forward with their respective nuclear postures.
The threat of a nuclear conflict emanating from the Korean Peninsula is more pronounced today than at any time since the Korean conflict of 1950-53. The efforts of the Biden administration to address this threat by increasing the US nuclear presence in the region is akin to pouring fuel on an already-combustible situation. All that is needed is a spark for the situation to burst into flames. This unfortunate reality reflects the lack of any genuine effort by the Biden administration to pursue meaningful arms control. It should serve as a wake-up call to those entrusted with formulating and implementing such policy, before it is too late.