26 October 2017 | Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
North Korea’s six nuclear tests and progress developing a missile force have triggered calls for the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons – sometimes known as “battlefield” or “theater” nuclear weapons – to South Korea. While we have heard such calls before, they are getting louder as the Trump administration nears completion of its Nuclear Posture Review. They come from defense hawks in both Washington and Seoul.
Proponents of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea appear to believe that doing so would better deter Pyongyang and reassure Seoul. However, deterrence and reassurance are complicated and constantly shifting goals. They do not necessarily function predictably or follow logic. As such, the way Washington practices nuclear deterrence and reassurance on the Korean Peninsula has changed significantly over the years. It would be misguided – potentially even catastrophic – to apply lessons from the past to the present or future.
During the Cold War, the United States deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea continuously for 33 years, from January 1958 to December 1991. It did so to deter aggression from North Korea (which did not yet have nuclear weapons) and to some extent also from Russia and China. In fact, the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, served as a catalyst for the initial release of US nuclear weapons from the custody of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission to the armed forces for potential use in a conflict (Defense Threat Reduction Agency 1998 Defense Threat Reduction Agency. 1998. “Defense Special Weapons Agency 1947–1997.” http://www.dtra.mil/Portals/61/Documents/History/DSWA_1947-1997.pdf., 7–8).
The first US nuclear weapons in South Korea arrived four-and-a-half years after the Korean War ended and four years after forward deployment of nuclear weapons began in Europe. Over the years, the numbers and types deployed in South Korea changed frequently. At one point in the mid-to-late 1960s, as many as eight different types were deployed at the same time, and the arsenal peaked at an all-time high of approximately 950 nuclear warheads in 1967.
Over the following quarter century, the US nuclear arsenal in South Korea gradually declined as weapon systems were withdrawn or retired and conventional capabilities improved. By the early 1980s, the arsenal had shrunk to between 200 and 300 weapons, and it declined to around 100 by 1990. Then on September 27, 1991, in a televised address, President George H.W. Bush announced the US decision to “eliminate its entire worldwide inventory of ground-launched, short-range, that is, theater nuclear weapons.” He went on, “We will bring home and destroy all of our nuclear artillery shells and short-range ballistic missile warheads” (Bush 1991 Bush, G. H. W. 1991. “Address to the Nation on Reducing United States and Soviet Nuclear Weapons.” September 27. https://bush41library.tamu.edu/archives/public-papers/3438.). The initiative was focused on the Soviet Union; South Korea was a side chapter – indeed, Bush did not even mention the South Korean-based weapons in his speech. The nuclear artillery and bombs that remained in South Korea at the time of the address were all withdrawn by December 1991.
Since then, the United States has protected South Korea (and Japan) under a nuclear umbrella made up of several types of weapons: dual-capable fighter-bombers and strategic nuclear forces in the form of bombers and submarines.11. The United States also has land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can target North Korea. To reach North Korea, though, these ICBMs would have to overfly Russia and China, so they are thought to be focused on targeting Russia.View all notes Until 1994, US aircraft carriers were also equipped to deliver nuclear bombs, but as noted in the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, the US government decided at that time to denuclearize all surface ships. The military retained the nuclear Tomahawk Land-Attack Cruise Missile, but stored it on land until retiring it in 2011.
Tactical nuclear weapons deployments
The first half of the period during which the United States deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea is documented in a 1978 Defense Department publication, History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons, July 1945 Through December 1977.22. A PDF version of this redacted document is available at: http://nautilus.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/306.pdf.
View all notes “South Korea” is redacted from the report’s list of deployment locations, but Nuclear Notebook co-author Robert S. Norris, who obtained a declassified version under the Freedom of Information Act, was able to determine that South Korea is the seventeenth country on the report’s chronological deployment list (Norris, Arkin, and Burr 1999a Norris, R., W. M. Arkin, and W. Burr 1999a. “Where They Were.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December, pp. 26–35.
doi:10.1080/00963402.1999.11460389., 1999b Norris, R., W. M. Arkin, and W. Burr 1999b. “‘Appendix B’: Deployments by Country, 1951-1977,” NRDC Nuclear Notebook.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December, pp. 66–67. doi:10.2968/055006019.). The second half of the South Korean deployment, from 1978 to 1991, has not been officially declassified, but we have pieced together a variety of sources to form a complete history (see Figure 1).
The history shows a dramatic nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula shortly after the end of the Korean War. In the first month, January 1958, the United States deployed four (or possibly five) nuclear weapon systems with approximately 150 warheads. The systems included the Honest John surface-to-surface missile, the Atomic-Demolition Munition nuclear landmine, and two nuclear artillery weapons, the 280-millimeter gun and the 8-inch (203-millimeter) howitzer.
The Matador cruise missile also appears to have been deployed in 1958, according to a United Nations Command announcement reported by the US Armed Forces publication Pacific Stars and Stripes (“UNC in Korea Gets Matador Missiles” 1958 “UNC in Korea Gets Matador Missiles.” Pacific Stars and Stripes, December 18, 1958, pp. 1–2. For a copy of this article, see http://www.tacmissileers.org/korea-gets-matador-missiles/.). But for some reason, the weapon is not listed in the Defense Department’s custody report. It is possible that the authors of the custody report made a mistake or that the missile was deployed without warheads.
Nuclear bombs for fighter-bombers arrived next, in March 1958, followed by three surface-to-surface missile systems – the Lacrosse, Davy Crockett, and Sergeant – between July 1960 and September 1963. Within five years of the first deployment, the South Korea-based stockpile had ballooned to seven different nuclear weapon systems and 600 warheads in total.
Original Link: A history of US nuclear weapons in South Korea
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