Congress's Risky Chest-Thumping

June 20, 2012

By Rep. Hank Johnson (GA-04) and Jonathan Ossoff, Senior Legislative Assistant as it appeared in The Diplomat:

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee this month added language to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that I call the “Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” provision. This already infamous provision requires DoD and the State Department to consider redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region to “counter” North Korea.

The U.S. first deployed tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958 to support President Eisenhower’s strategy of “massive retaliation” strategy.  Hundreds of warheads were stationed on South Korean soil for 33 years. In December 1991, they were withdrawn under George H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which withdrew overseas tactical nuclear weapons except for a few bombs that remained in Europe.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. military had determined the tactical nuclear weapons were no longer necessary to defend South Korea. Their withdrawal was a key step to achieving the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization under which South and North Korea agreed not to test, produce, manufacture, posses, receive, store deploy or use nuclear weapons. That treaty is one of the main points of leverage for the international community to use when increasing multilateral diplomatic pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. military still believes tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea are unnecessary. So does the government of South Korea. 

Before the legislation even passed the House, the proposed language provoked a strong negative reaction from the South Korean government and forced the U.S. State Department to clarify that putting such weapons in South Korea is not on the table. The Yonhap News Agency– South Korea’s largest news service – reported May 6 that the South Korean armed forces oppose the redeployment of U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons in their country.

I proposed an amendment to the defense authorization that would have replaced the Dr. Strangelove provision with a simple Congressional finding that the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea would be destabilizing and not in the national security interests of the United States.
In fact, it is the worst kind of Congressional saber rattling. It means to look tough; instead, it makes the U.S. House of Representatives look ignorant and tone-deaf to the real security and political needs of our allies.

The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea would be extremely destabilizing to the region, accelerate North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, undermine decades of multilateral diplomatic efforts to secure a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, and it could dramatically heighten tensions with China and Russia, whose leaders would be understandably concerned by American tactical nuclear forces in their back yard.

Our forces in the region, including our ballistic missile submarines and forward-deployable nuclear capable bomber forces, are fully capable of countering any North Korea threat.

General Walter Sharp, recently retired commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said this less than one year ago: “I don’t believe tactical nuclear weapons need to return to the Republic of Korea.  The U.S. has the sufficient capabilities we have from stocks in different places around the world in order to be able to do what we need to be able to deter North Korea from using nuclear weapons ... They don’t have to be stationed here in Korea for either deterrent capability or use capability.”

There’s already growing instability in the Western Pacific due to festering maritime disputes – deploying tactical nuclear weapons would do nothing to promote stability and security.

At a time when we are trying to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, when we are trying to set an example for the world that we have to move beyond these evil weapons, when we are insisting on nonproliferation, it would be immensely counterproductive to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons in Asia.

The redeployment of American tactical nuclear weapons in Asia reflects an outdated Cold War mentality. It would be a grave mistake that could put us on the road toward our generation’s equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it discredits the U.S. House of Representatives, which under its current leadership is increasingly dismissed as a rash and ineffective legislative body.


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