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The US' tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Korean peninsula in September 1991.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.