U.S. Extended Deterrence and the Korean Peninsula's Changing Threat Environment
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U.S. Extended Deterrence and the Korean Peninsula's Changing Threat Environment

Transparency about the U.S. extended deterrent is critical to U.S.-ROK alliance coordination.
South Korean Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles travel during the annual Foal Eagle joint U.S.-ROK military training in Pohang, South Korea on April 5, 2018.
South Korean Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles travel during the annual Foal Eagle joint U.S.-ROK military training in Pohang, South Korea on April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-ji

This post is authored by Chun In-bum, vice president of the Korea Freedom Federation and a former lieutenant general in the ROK military. It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts will address the U.S. nuclear posture in Northeast Asia, implications of North Korean nuclear and missile programs for U.S. extended deterrence commitments, operational and tactical dimensions of deterrence on the peninsula, and regional dimensions of stability. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at [email protected] for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.

From the perspective of the average South Korean, the Weapons of Mass Destruction threat from North Korea is as ubiquitous as a typhoon and as likely as a major earthquake. The threat will always be there, and no one can do anything about it. In other words, there is no use worrying about it. 

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To South Koreans who are informed and more concerned, the threat from North Korea includes Long Range Artillery (LRA) with large caliber artillery guns and multiple rocket launchers, which are increasing accurate and in range to deliver chemical and biological agents to maim and kill the Korean people as well as U.S. forces in Osan and at Camp Humpreys in Pyeongtaek. The North Koreans have even boasted that their LRAs will turn Seoul and the greater Seoul metropolitan area into a sea of fire.

An environment of reduced conventional tension implies that the North Korean LRA threat has ceased, or at least been reduced. I would contend, however, that the circumstances have merely shifted, and that North Korea now has a much more effective weapon of the nuclear variety. Therefore, the U.S. extended deterrent commitment must be stronger and more transparent. 

South Korea and its neighbors rely on the United States to deter against the North Korean nuclear threat. Despite this complete reliance, there is insufficient understanding of the deterrent from the Korean perspective. First, the United States is understandably reluctant to share details of its capability and intent. Second, the United States and South Korea do not practice or exercise this critical military capability or the political decision-making process that would precede the use of nuclear weapons. This situation is compounded by the different messages and policies that Washington has provided on nuclear responses. 

In 2016, South Korea and the United States established the Extended Deterrence Strategic Coordination Group (EDSCG) to address the first issue: improving understanding of the U.S. extended deterrent. Though the establishment of the group was a step in the right direction, the EDSCG has so far produced no substantive results. Because the EDSCG was established as a reaction to the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, as the peace process on the Korean Peninsula has evolved, interest in the EDSCG seems to have declined.

This lack of interest is unfortunate. The EDSCG should be used as a platform to discuss the development of likely scenarios, target options, and the critical decision process. Under what conditions should a nuclear response be considered? Would a nuclear attack on Seoul and/or other population areas necessitate a nuclear response? Maybe. What about a chemical attack killing hundreds of thousands? What about an attack on a military target, such as a combined ROK-U.S. assembly area? On a U.S. military installation like Camp Humphreys? When asked the above questions, the United States has essentially responded that it will turn North Korea into a parking lot - not a practical or reassuring answer, unless the South Koreans want to park their cars in a radioactive lot. 

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To better enable alliance coordination in a time of crisis, the United States should clearly communicate the available nuclear options to South Korea. This discussion should include information on the yield of its weapons, the effects of those weapons if deployed, how much time the Koreans would have in a crisis scenario to make any given decision, and, most importantly, what non-nuclear options exist. South Koreans must then ask themselves whether they want to turn Pyeongyang into a radioactive wasteland because the North Koreans have done the same to Seoul, or whether a surgical strike that leaves Pyeongyang intact while eliminating the North Korean leadership would be more beneficial for the future of the Korean people.

The United States and South Korea must also discuss targeting. If the decision to respond to a nuclear attack is made and if it is established that a nuclear response is appropriate, the next step is to determine where to strike and to what effect. Is the chosen target reasonable? Feasible? Does the plan of attack meet the stated objective? These are complex decision that should not be made rashly or under duress. Though someone in the United States has surely thought through these questions, the problem is that the South Koreans do not know. They must also be a part of the decision-making process.  

Without the above information or understanding, there can be no substantive discussion. The U.S. decision to hold these deliberations close to the chest rests on the notion that there is a different standard for information handling in South Korea. Still, the nuclear threat from North Korea is now real and these issues must be dealt with. As discussion of these matters progresses, the imperative for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula will become self-evident and support for the denuclearization of North Korea will continue to grow more robust.

Once the United States and South Korea share a common understanding of the basics, they must agree on a process for the unthinkable and make the necessary preparations. No major military exercise today accomplishes this objective. At the very least, a regular compact war game should be conducted at the working level to ensure that there are educated professional on both sides who are familiar with the overall process.

It is in the best interest of the United States to educate the South Korean public, to ensure the credibility and transparency of extended deterrence, and give a holistic view of the benefits and costs of possessing nuclear weapons. Despite the current environment of reduced tension between the North and South, a denuclearized North Korea should be non-negotiable.

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