Home Contact Us  

Peace Audit and Ceasefire Monitor - Articles

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
#5242, 6 March 2017

East Asia Compass

US Tactical Nukes in the Korean Peninsula?
Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS

On 4 March 2017, The New York Times reported that the US national security deputies discussed the option of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. The expressed purpose was to give North Korea a ‘dramatic warning’. It may not be easy to make a final decision on the issue as it would also need consent from South Korea; but bringing the option on the table itself is an important move by the Trump administration, with serious implications. 

The US' tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Korean peninsula in September 1991. Washington's policy has been consistent and clear that neither US tactical weapons are needed on the Korean peninsula nor is South Korea allowed to develop its own nuclear arsenal. The current deliberation, if taken forward, would be a fundamental departure from the US' nearly three decades-long posture.

There could be three reasons for the US to opt for this change. One, presence of the tactical nuclear weapons would give parity to South Korea in its negotiations with North Korea. Two, it would send a clear message to North Korea that the policy of the new administration would be very different from the ‘strategic patience’ of former US President Barack Obama's administration. Third, it would push Beijing to be tougher with North Korea as these tactical warheads are going to be stationed in the close vicinity of Chinese territory. The US' move is also posited in the Trump administration’s recent opinion that it is too late to talk to North Korea and China is not doing enough to end North Korean nuclear ambition, which it can do 'very quickly and easily'. 

The US' desperation vis-a-vis the North Korean nuclear programme is understandable but its strategy and course seems to be less informed about the recent developments in China-North Korea relations and China-South Korea relations. In fact, China has recently shown willingness to apply more pressure on North Korea. On 18 February 2017, China cut off one of Pyongyang's very few revenue lifelines by banning North Korea’s coal imports for the rest of the year. China has also been concerned about the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea which has had 40 ballistic-missile and three nuclear tests during his five-year reign, including four missile tests on 6 March 2017. Furthermore, Jong-un has purged senior officials who allegedly had close links to China, including his uncle Jang Song-thaek. 

It is also suspected that Jong-un fears a possible Chinese conspiracy to replace him; and that the recent killing of Jong-un's estranged brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia is also a result of this fear psychosis towards China as he was living in Macao under Chinese protection. Although, North Korea denies its role in the killing, the use of the nerve agent VX would definitely alarm China about Pyongyang's chemical weapons capacity. For the same reasons, Chinese President Xi Jinping met his South Korean counterpart on multiple occasions after assuming office, but has so far denied meeting with the North Korean leader. On 28 February 2017, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song began a five-day visit to China but reportedly the visit failed to re-establish communication between the two countries. 

However, it would be premature to conclude on whether China will be irreversibly tougher towards North Korea because it fears that a collapse of North Korea may lead to a wave of refugees and also the disappearance of a geopolitical buffer to US forces under a unified Korea. However, obdurate North Korea poses difficult choices for Beijing, and China has increasingly adopted a tougher approach towards North Korea.

Already, the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) missile system in South Korea has been an unacceptable proposition to China. Even though South Korea has explained to Beijing about it being meant for North Korea multiple times, China does not seem convinced. In the past few months, it has taken tougher actions on South Korea by curtailing Chinese tourists to South Korea and punishing Lotte Stores in China, which in South Korea is proving space for the THAAD installation. 

In the above context, the recent deliberations over redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula seem to be an act of over-doing. It comes at a timewhen Beijing appears to be ready to do more to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambition. China seems to be convinced that North Korea's dangerous provocations in the form of nuclear and missile tests along with its clear defiance to China’s national interests could not be tolerated indefinitely. However, it needs space and excuses to be tougher on North Korea. Over-reaction by the US or South Korea would not provide China the space or excuse to do so. 

US moves in the East Asia, including its approach towards North Korea under the Trump administration, appear to be based on the tactic of unilateral pro-action, and friends and foes are pushed to make their own reactions. Several experts who have been dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s ‘inaction’ in Northeast Asia may read Trump’s moves positively. However, even from this perspective of pro-activeness, it would be more appropriate to give sufficient time to others to react. 

This week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit China, South Korea and Japan, and hopefully, his deliberations would lead to a rethink over the US' deliberation on tactical nuclear weapons. Otherwise, it seems that the US has moved from being inactive to overactive vis-a-vis North Korea and neither of the strategies may be able to bring desired results.

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
IPCS Columnists
Af-Pak Diary
D Suba Chandran
Resetting Kabul-Islamabad Relations: Three Key Issues
Can Pakistan Reset its Relations with Afghanistan?
The New Afghanistan: Four Major Challenges for President Ghani
Big Picture
Prof Varun Sahni
Understanding Democracy and Diversity in J&K
When Xi Met Modi: Juxtaposing China and India
Pakistan?s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Inevitability of Instability

Dateline Colombo

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera.
Sri Lanka: Moving Towards a Higher Collective Outcome
The Importance of Electing the Best to our Nation's Parliament
Sri Lanka: Toward a Diaspora Re-Engagement Plan
Dateline Islamabad
Salma Malik
Pakistan's Hurt Locker: What Next?
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
India-Pakistan Relations in 2015: Through a Looking Glass
Dhaka Discourse
Prof Delwar Hossain
IPCS Forecast: Bangladesh in 2015
18th SAARC Summit: A Perspective from Bangladesh
Bangladesh in Global Forums: Diplomacy vs. Domestic Politics
Eagle Eye
Prof Chintamani Mahapatra
India-US: Significance of the Second Modi-Obama Meet
Has President Obama Turned Lame Duck?
Modi-Obama Summit: Criticism for Criticism?s Sake?

East Asia Compass
Dr Sandip Mishra
India-Japan-US Trilateral: India?s Policy for the Indo-Pacific
China-South Korea Ties: Implications for the US Pivot to Asia
Many ?Pivots to Asia?: What Does It Mean For Regional Stability?
Himalayan Frontier
Pramod Jaiswal
Nepal?s New Constitution: Instrument towards Peace or Catalyst to Conflict?
IPCS Forecast: Nepal in 2015
Constitution-making: Will Nepal Miss its Second Deadline?

Prof Shankari Sundararaman
IPCS Forecast: Southeast Asia in 2015
Indonesia's Pacific Identity: What Jakarta Must Do in West Papua
Modi in Myanmar: From ?Look East? to ?Act East?
Sushant Sareen
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
Islamic State: Prospects in Pakistan
Pakistan: The Futility of Internationalising Kashmir

Looking East
Wasbir Hussain
Myanmar in New Delhi's Naga Riddle
China: ?Peaceful? Display of Military Might
Naga Peace Accord: Need to Reserve Euphoria
Maritime Matters
Vijay Sakhuja
Indian Ocean: Modi on a Maritime Pilgrimage
Indian Ocean: Exploring Maritime Domain Awareness
IPCS Forecast: The Indian Ocean in 2015

Nuke Street
Amb Sheelkant Sharma
US-Russia and Global Nuclear Security: Under a Frosty Spell?
India's Nuclear Capable Cruise Missile: The Nirbhay Test
India-Australia Nuclear Agreement: Bespeaking of a New Age
Red Affairs
Bibhu Prasad
Countering Left Wing Extremism: Failures within Successes
Return of the Native: CPI-Maoist in Kerala
The Rising Civilian Costs of the State-Vs-Extremists Conflict

Regional Economy
Amita Batra
India and the APEC
IPCS Forecast: South Asian Regional Integration
South Asia: Rupee Regionalisation and Intra-regional Trade Enhancement
South Asian Dialectic
PR Chari
Resuming the Indo-Pak Dialogue: Evolving a New Focus
Defence Management in India: An Agenda for Parrikar
Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: Implications for Asian Security

Spotlight West Asia
Amb Ranjit Gupta
Prime Minister Modi Finally Begins His Interaction with West Asia*
A Potential Indian Role in West Asia?
US-GCC Summit: More Hype than Substance
Strategic Space
Manpreet Sethi
India-Russia Nuclear Vision Statement: See that it Delivers
Global Nuclear Disarmament: The Humanitarian Consequences Route
Nasr: Dangers of Pakistan's Short Range Ballistic Missile

The Strategist
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Jihadi Aggression and Nuclear Deterrence
The Blight of Ambiguity
Falun Gong: The Fear Within

OTHER REGULAR contributors
Gurmeet Kanwal
Harun ur Rashid
N Manoharan
Wasbir Hussain
Rana Banerji
N Manoharan

Ruhee Neog
Teshu Singh
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Roomana Hukil
Aparupa Bhattacherjee


Browse by Publications

Issue Briefs 
Special Reports 
Research Papers 
Seminar Reports 
Conference Reports 

Browse by Region/Countries

East Asia 
South Asia 
Southeast Asia 
US & South Asia 

Browse by Issues

India & the world  
Naxalite Violence 
Suicide Terrorism 
Peace & Conflict Database 
Article by same Author
Denuclearising the Korean Peninsula: US Policy and China's Role

'Comfort Women' and the Japan-South Korea Relationship

Denial and Provocation: Failure of US' North Korea Policy

Trump's Visit to East Asia

Shinzo Abe’s North Korea Strategy

North Korea: Testing the Limits of US-South Korea Relations

The US' Acrobatic Responses to the North Korean Riddle

Japan’s ‘New Approach’ to Russia: Is it Moving Forward?

India and the Koreas: Promises and Follow-ups

South Korea-North Korea: A New Version of Engagement

Trump’s North Korea Policy: Regional Implications

Park Geun-hye's Impeachment and South Korean Foreign Policy

Forecast 2017: East Asia

Japan-China Contestation in 2017

Donald Trump and East Asia

PM Modi’s Visit to Japan: Prospects and Prudence

Future of the TPP and the US' Pivot to Asia

Russia’s Overtures in East Asia

China’s Game on North Korea

Six-Party Talks 2.0: Not for Denuclearisation but for Peace

Deadlock at Shangri-La: Is There a Way Forward?

North Koreas 7th Party Congress: Context and Content

Japans New Security Laws: Context and Implications

What is the Efficacy of Sanctions on North Korea?

Brilliant Comrade: The Design in North Korean Madness

Y! MyWeb
Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
Year 2018
 January  February
 2017  2016  2015  2014  2013  2012  2011  2010
 2009  2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002
 2001  2000  1999  1998  1997

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) is the premier South Asian think tank which conducts independent research on and provides an in depth analysis of conventional and non-conventional issues related to national and South Asian security including nuclear issues, disarmament, non-proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, the war on terrorism, counter terrorism , strategies security sector reforms, and armed conflict and peace processes in the region.

For those in South Asia and elsewhere, the IPCS website provides a comprehensive analysis of the happenings within India with a special focus on Jammu and Kashmir and Naxalite Violence. Our research promotes greater understanding of India's foreign policy especially India-China relations, India's relations with SAARC countries and South East Asia.

Through close interaction with leading strategic thinkers, former members of the Indian Administrative Service, the Foreign Service and the three wings of the Armed Forces - the Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force, - the academic community as well as the media, the IPCS has contributed considerably to the strategic discourse in India.

Subscribe to Newswire | Site Map
18, Link Road, Jungpura Extension, New Delhi 110014, INDIA.

Tel: 91-11-4100-1902    Email: officemail@ipcs.org

© Copyright 2018, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.