If the North aims nuclear missiles at the South, would the U.S. immediately retaliate with nuclear weapons?
The uproar over North Korea’s third nuclear test has died down to some extent. Vehement condemnation and outcries toward unruly North Korea – as if it was ready to start a nuclear war – have simmered down. But the advances in the North’s nuclear armament have become alarmingly dangerous and demand quick resolute actions because it poses the first major task for the new Park Geun-hye administration.
In her inaugural address, Park sent a solemn message to Pyongyang, warning that it will end up as the biggest victim from the nuclear test and urging it to put down nuclear weaponry to join the path of peace and co-prosperity. However, she repeated her campaign promise of a different approach from the hardline Lee Myung-bak administration, reiterating that she will strive to build mutual trust with the North – despite its nuclear threat and based on ‘irrefutable deterrence.’ A new storm in a teacup may be brewing.
What does she mean by ‘irrefutable deterrence’? North Korea is armed with more than 1,000 ballistic missiles that can reach South Korea, Japan and Guam. If it actually succeeded in building a smaller and lighter bomb as it claimed, it is closer to turning out miniaturized nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop its long-range missiles. The country is estimated to be near developing inter-continental ballistic missiles that can even strike the U.S. mainland within a few years.
North Korea also supposedly has more than a hundred mobile launchers that can evade preemptive strikes from the U.S. and South Korea.
Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Jung Seung-jo said South Korea could make preemptive strikes upon signs of attack movement in the North. The military will establish a so-called kill chain that can detect alarming movement in North Korea, identify a target and strike it in less than a half hour. But we cannot entirely believe in a perfect system that could completely intercept North Korean missiles. Does the military mean it can deliver full protection from nuclear bombs flying from North Korea? The military is currently working on a Korean Air and Missile Defense System. But so far, its endeavours are more of a showpiece. Even when completed, it cannot guarantee an impeccable kill chain and irrefutable deterrence that the government has been promising.
The remaining realistic option would be strengthening our strategic leverage in the U.S. alliance. South Korea could positively consider joining the U.S.-led missile defense system. If it opts to join the planned buildup of defensive posture in the Asia-Pacific arena, South Korea’s strategic importance to the U.S. would increase.
Beijing would likely strongly oppose Seoul’s joining the U.S. missile shield program in Northeast Asia that it claims is intended to contain China. But Beijing cannot step in as South Koreans now live in imminent danger of a nuclear threat from the North because of its lukewarm attitude about impending danger.
Deterrence alone cannot be a fundamental solution to the North’s nuclear threat. At the same time, we cannot make a preemptive strike to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons as it could trigger a full-blown war. The buildup of mutual trust on the Korean Peninsula – as suggested by President Park – may be a better solution than that. There is no guarantee on how long and how well it will work. But that way would prevent a war and save millions of lives.