South Korea’s defense minister has stated it would be worth considering redeploying nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula, 26 years after those missiles were originally removed. Song Young-moo spoke to Secretary of Defense Mattis on the worsening situation between North and South Korea. The North’s renewed nuclear testing on Sunday resulted in a blast that was significantly stronger than what we’ve seen previously, though exactly how much stronger remains open to debate.
The United States Geological Survey picked up a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, which would be 1.2 magnitude points higher than the 5.1 earthquakes we’ve detected from previous tests. The 1.2 difference in magnitude translates to 63 times more energy being released, according to the USGS website. There’s variation in the size of the earthquake detected at various locations and a corresponding variation in the estimated strength of the nuclear device, with South Korea estimating at 100 kt from a 5.7 earthquake, NORSAR (the Norwegian Seismic Array) reporting 5.8 and a 120 kt yield, and a several hundred kiloton yield if the 6.3 earthquake estimate from USGS is accurate.
“I told him that it would be good for strategic assets to be sent regularly to the Korean Peninsula and that some South Korean lawmakers and media are strongly pushing for tactical nuclear weapons [to be redeployed],” Song told a parliamentary hearing on North Korea’s nuclear test, as reported by The Washington Post. Mattis’ response, if any, was not given.
No matter how large the detonation, it pales in comparison to the US’ original Ivy Mike hydrogen bomb test shot, which had a 10.4 megaton yield. Then again, the North Koreans aren’t trying to build anything as physically large as the Ivy Mike thermonuclear “assembly.” Even 100 kilotons is significantly more powerful than the weapons North Korea has detonated to-date.
President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke regarding North Korea’s nuclear tests over the weekend, and agreed to waive some restrictions on the maximum missile payloads Seoul is allowed to launch. There was no information on whether they spoke about the deployment of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. Song Young-moo is more conservative than South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, who was elected earlier this spring and promised to pursue a policy of discussion and engagement with North Korea. North Korea, which believes it has a duty to reunify the entire Korean peninsula under its own rule, has historically rejected attempts to rein in its nuclear ambitions throughout the terms of multiple US presidents.
We’ve stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea before, but President George H. W. Bush removed them in 1991. President Trump has previously promised a strong military response if North Korea continued to escalate its conflict, but the South Koreans themselves have opposed any kind of US military action or build-up in the region. It is not clear if the NK detonation will change this calculus — this was the first earthquake-related detonation that was strong enough to be felt in South Korea, which could frighten people into changing their minds.
One potential problem, however, is that any attempt to move nuclear weapons into South Korea will almost certainly be observed or leaked to the North Koreans, who would rightly view such weapons as an existential threat. While the degree to which North Korea represents a genuine threat to the United States remains in question, there’s little doubt it could hit Japan, and no doubt whatsoever that it could do tremendous damage to South Korea. North Korean artillery are capable of hitting Seoul, South Korea’s largest city, with conventional shells, much less nuclear weapons. And North Korea will likely view any attempt to station nuclear missiles in SK in much the same fashion as the US viewed Soviet attempts to install missiles on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Trump has suggested the United States could cease trading with every country that trades with North Korea, but this is effectively impossible. North Korea trades with more than 100 countries, including China and India. Our trade with China alone accounted for $ 648 billion in goods and services last year. Everything from clothing to iPhones flows through countries that trade with North Korea. While sanctions and negotiation are preferable to all-out war, the chances we’ll up the ante further by killing all trade with countries that also trade with North Korea is extremely unlikely. The global recession and economic downturn from such a move would cripple countries around the world, including our own.