Months of tensions on the Korean peninsula have emerged at an awkward time for the United States: In the aftermath of draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with a budget deficit still at a near-record high, there is little appetite in Washington for more military commitments. How should the United States reconcile its global fatigue, an empty treasury, and a history of failed diplomacy with North Korea with the requirements to defend its South Korean ally and itself?
The reinstallation of nuclear weapons into South Korea may be the answer. It would enhance deterrence, reassure the South Korean people and, in the long run, possibly lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Largely forgotten today, the United States housed 11 types of nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 to 1991. Introduced by the Eisenhower administration, they provided an economical substitute for the large number of boots on the ground that departed with the end of the Korean War in 1953. The policy meshed with the Pentagon's global nuclear deterrent directed at the Soviet Union and China from East Asia.
After the Cold War ended, the George H.W. Bush administration removed the arsenal as part of a global nuclear drawdown. In February 1992, North and South Korea signed a joint declaration stating that the peninsula would be permanently denuclearized. But even before the ink was dry, Pyongyang cheated, refusing Seoul's request to inspect suspect sites.
In the two decades that followed, North Korea continued to drop out of agreements aimed at curtailing its nuclear weapons program: the nuclear nonproliferation treaty; the 1994 Agreed Framework, which would have replaced its nuclear reactors with the more difficult to weaponize light-water reactors; the accord after the 2007 Six Party Talks, in which Pyongyang promised to shut down its main nuclear reactor; and the 2012 understanding with Washington to suspend nuclear and long-range missile testing. Despite this bleak history, Washington seems to believe it can talk, sanction, induce, coax or threaten the North to give up its nuclear program. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it during his mid-April Asia trip, "North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power."
But unless Washington wishes to initiate military action, it may have no choice. The fact remains that North Korea has nukes. It conducted its third nuclear-weapons test in February, and in April it vowed to restart its Yongbyon plutonium reactor and uranium enrichment plant. It's a reality that's worth repeating: North Korea will not give up the bomb.