Jeffrey LewisCrazy Korea Story

Several of my colleagues have been scratching their heads over a bizarre story that appeared in the Joongang Ilbo (“U.S. nukes to remain in South, To deter a North attack, weapons to stay after joint drills, possibly on sub”) that attributed a number of odd statements about U.S. nuclear weapons to a “high-ranking South Korean government official.”

Maybe Madame Park likes to drink?

I am not sure I have any special insight into WTF this official is talking about, but here is some text to accompany the sounds of itching skulls.

Let’s start with the oddest statements from the story — emphasis mine throughout — and then I’ll make some observations in no particular order.

After two Korea-U.S. joint military drills end, American vessels equipped with nuclear weapons will stay in South Korean waters to fully guarantee the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” in case North Korea attacks.

A high-ranking South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday, “If North Korea makes a nuclear attack, retaliation can come from U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Okinawa or Guam. But considering the time that might take, we need to have a nuclear weapon near the Korean Peninsula.

“By not withdrawing U.S. weapons participating in the Korea-U.S. military exercises, we decided to let them stay a while and see what happens in North Korea,” he said.

“We decided to convene another Korea-U.S. submarine drill after the Foal Eagle training ends at the end of April,” the official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We are still negotiating [with Washington] how to utilize the nuclear weapons after then.”

The official did not specify which warships would remain behind with nuclear weapons.

Sources in the South Korean military told the JoongAng Ilbo that a nuclear-armed submarine is a strong candidate.

“Since the third nuclear test by North Korea in February, there have been calls for us to possess anuclear weapon,” a South Korean military official said. “Among various options – our own development, adoption of tactical nuclear weapons and utilizing the U.S. nuclear umbrella – the third is the most realistic.”

OK, let’s start.

First, I think the South Korean official is attempting to convey that a US nuclear submarine of one sort or another is participating in the ongoing Foal Eagle/Key Resolve exercises.  Now, is this submarine nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable?  The wording “equipped with nuclear weapons” is unambiguous, but perhaps something got lost in the translation.

1. It is possible that exercise includes a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). The United States does, in fact, have nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines participate in exercises, although I have not heard of one participating in a multinational exercise.  There has been some chatter about resuming port calls of nuclear-armed SSBNs in South Korea, something that happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s when extended deterrence was rocky. (Pictured above, maybe, according to Hans.)  Maybe this is a step in that direction.

2. It is also possible that the exercise includes a converted ballistic missile submarine that does not carry nuclear weapons. The USS Ohio, a nuclear ballistic missile submarine the Navy converted to a carry conventional guided missiles, participated in Key Resolve/Foal Eagle 2009.  The South Koreans enjoyed using it as a press backdrop. While an SSGN is not nuclear-armed, it is indistinguishable from the real article to my eye.  The confusion is understandable and, in fact, might be a benefit.

3.  Finally, it is possible that a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, like the USS Bremerton, is participating. Some Los Angeles-class attack submarines, including the USS Bremerton, can carry the TLAM/N — the nuclear-armed Tomahawk.  The United States has not deployed TLAM/N on any attack submarines since early 1992, following the September 1991 President’s Nuclear Initiative. The airframes and warheads have been in storage. The Navy did not plan a replacement system, leaving the Obama Administration to allow the retirement of the TLAM/N to proceed without replacement. In April 2010, Jim Miller testified that the timeline for the retirement of the TLAM/N was over the “next two to three years.” I would be surprised if there were any residual TLAM/N capability at this point, but I can’t rule it out and the South Koreans may simply be none the wiser.

We might get additional clarity over the next few weeks. When a submarine returns home, there is often a little item in the local press that contains some operational information. Maybe some sailor will be indiscreet on a message board.

Second, the whole idea that U.S. nuclear weapons need to be stationed in “Korean waters” is ridiculous.

1. As far as I know, there are no nuclear weapons stationed in Okinawa or Guam, nor any facilities to accommodate nuclear weapons. The Administration does talk about the ability to forward-deploy B-2 bombers to Guam as a symbol of extended deterrence, but I think this is a silly symbol. As I have noted before, “Nor would the United States forward deploy nuclear-armed B-2s, either in Guam or elsewhere. The B-2 can reach targets from North Korea to Iran directly from Missouri, which is what the United States did in the early stages of operations against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The only rationale for forward-basing is to permit more sorties – something of interest only in ongoing conventional operations.” Nuclear death and destruction visited upon North Korea will probably come with a 65336 postal code.

2. The flight-time argument is impenetrable to me. Setting aside what difference minutes or hours might make in various nuclear-use scenarios, the flight time for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile is minutes. Putting an SSBN closer to Korea isn’t really necessary and is, in fact, undesirable for any number of reasons. As for the TLAM/N, among the undesirable properties that persuaded the Navy to part with that system, one drawback is the relatively long flight time to target, which is to say nothing of the tendency to crash en route. There just is not, as far as I can tell, any military reason to have a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine leave its Pacific patrol grounds to hang out around Dokdo.

Third, and finally, this episode illustrates my pet peeve about extended deterrence.  We don’t do ourselves any favors by attempting to reassure our allies with false promises.  The effort to reassure South Korea through our ability to forward deploy B-2 bombers in Guam — something we wouldn’t do for nuclear-use scenarios — simply reinforces misconceptions that exist in Seoul about the nature of  extended deterrence.  The whole Guam nonsense leaves unaddressed the inaccurate belief on the part of many South Koreans that extended deterrence functions better if there are weapons “close by.”

These misconceptions hamper relations — now we have to turn down a South Korean request to keep a nuclear-armed submarine lurking in the East Sea/Sea of Japan — and over time will undermine the credibility of our commitment.  I have been hopeful that new mechanisms like the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee might allow consultations to reduce our tendency to use obsolete hardware as a symbol of our commitment.

That might still happen, but its clear we aren’t there yet.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    To be fair – deterrence is about politics and psychology as well as cold calculation. In the case both of NK and deterring them, and SK and convincing them that we’ve deterred NK, there may well be something to a “show the flag” type event.

    Remember, “Deterrence” is not “a dry run of an actual weapons use scenario”.

    Deterrence includes getting up in people’s faces without risking them misinterpreting it as being about to pull the trigger. B-2’s overflying Seoul are visible to both sides.

    Actual weapons use would be President’s decision to Football to (scenario-dependent secondary auth) to NCA communications to Minot to goodbye about 45 min after the sequence started. There’s nothing that the South Korean public can see of that. Nor, frankly, that NK’s leaders can see of that, other than being intellectually aware it’s out there.

    • Magpie (History)

      There is something to be said for security theatre, as long as your “fake” actions push people’s perceptions more towards reality. Things are tense, some South Koreans are perhaps (?) less certain of US support than they should realistically be, so some physical signs of support might be appropriate, no matter how functionally irrelevant. Even if the gesture is theatre, it still serves to calm fears that shouldn’t really have been fears in the first place (ie that the US would hesitate to beat nine-colours of crap out of the north if they ever got nukey).

      …still sounds like someone here just got the wrong end of the wrong stick, though.

  2. SQ (History)

    That is just weird.

    Maybe the official thinks a “nuclear attack sub” means nuclear-armed, when in fact it means nuclear-powered?

    Guam and Okinawa! Wow. Imagine what the Okinawans would say.

    • JR (History)

      I thought the same thing. I’ve seen similar mistakes when non-DoD civilians try to read-and-then-brief military issues. Things that most of this blog’s readers take for granted — the technical “basics” of long-range rocketry and the difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear power — are not at all common knowledge!

    • Cameron (History)

      The Okinawa comment makes me put “uninformed political source” at the top of the list for the quote. Someone who doesn’t know the difference between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

      Guam supports SSNs, which makes sense with that reading of the quote.

  3. Andy (History)

    Perhaps I’m jaded, but it doesn’t seem unusual at all to me for a “high ranking government official” to be clueless about technical military matters. Lack of knowledge sure doesn’t stop US officials from spouting off anonymously to the press. So I’m not really worried about a misconception here. The ROK military understands the details you describe and will, no doubt, inform the leadership if they really don’t understand these issues. I don’t think we should read too much into the bizarre-sounding opinion of one South Korean official.

    I also don’t think this is a case of us reassuring and ally with “false promises.” This was, after all, a South Korean official and I would agree with George about the psychological aspect. On the other hand, you’re right the US could do a better job making its deterrence policy clear to the public.

    • SQ (History)

      It’s slightly disconcerting when you consider that Ms. Park doesn’t really have her team in place yet. So it’s either 1) a career bureaucrat who should know better, 2) a holdover who should know better, or 3) a spectacularly ill-informed member of the new government.

      There is no new Defense Minister yet, at last look.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      My experience, which is admittedly more with the Japanese process than the Korean one, is not so encouraging. Civilian leaders seem consistently ill-informed in ways that are genuinely harmful to the process. It is possible that uniformed military is either not very well informed either or is simply not briefing up. Either way, my emphasis on consultations does reflect a possibly incorrect judgement that the current process does not produce a sufficiently well-informed foreign leadership.

      In terms of the psychological aspect of deterrence, I think we may disagree. The problem, I would argue, is that emphasizing the “psychological” aspects of deterrence becomes an excuse to make false claims about US forces just to make foreign leaders feel better. The Bush Administration in 2002 told the Japanese that TLAM/N was the symbol of our commitment, while not taking steps to replace it following retirement in 2013. Now the Obama Administration is telling them to forget TLAM/N and focus on the B61 LEP and F35, including plans to make it nuclear-capable, as the symbol of our commitment. We’re going to regret replacing one shiny object with another. The long-term effect is to undermine our credibility.

      I would rather we simply optimize our defense spending — and I am willing to do some sled tests if we have to — and then use consultations to convey what we can, and cannot, do on South Korea’s behalf. There may be some psychological benefit to purely symbolic acts, like the SSGN visit, but I would submit that extended deterrence is fundamental about our broader security commitment to South Korea, which in turn is really about our comprehensive bilateral relationship.

      To put it simply, those SSBN visits in the late 1970s didn’t compensate for Park’s assessment that Carter’s effort to withdraw ground forces was in fact a withdrawal of US support for his government.

    • Stephen Young (History)

      Jeffrey, re: “the LEP’ed B61 might be better” – we were told directly by an AF officer involved that the B61-12 will be no more accurate than the existing weapons. Apparently, the contractor said “What, you don’t want it more accurate?” and were told, no, given the concerns about perception of new warheads, it is specified to not be more accurate. There might be a little fungability around compensating for the lower yield on average by shifting to this version based on the Mod 4, but nothing more.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Strange thought: what if someone within the South KOrean government went to a freelancer, and asked them to dig up “the true story” about the U.S. nuclear program. And then, using a good typewriter, the freelancer made up on paper a whole “secret” nuclear arsenal, for the South Koreans needs?

    —I had a fantasy once: When ever a Democrat is elected President, the new President invetiably asks about the Kennedy Assassination, and the CIA hauls out one set of classified documents that makes it seem like Nixon did it.

    —And when ever a Republican is elected President, the CIA hauls out a set of classified documents that make it seem like the Mafia did it.

    And the CIA has special packages for the Libertarian Party candidate, and the SOcialist Party Candidate sitting in a safe, ready to go to play to those groups biases and prejudices.

  5. J House (History)

    “As far as I know, there are no nuclear weapons stationed in Okinawa or Guam, nor any facilities to accommodate nuclear weapons.”
    It is only conjecture, but it seems the area in the NE corner of Andersen Air force Base, just opposite Tarague Beach on the other side of the cliff, has security and nuclear weapons staging features similar to other facilities around the world. There is a 60,000 sq ft building within that area that has underground venting around the perimeter. In the Google historical imagery, you can see racks of conventional bombs sitting outside, so…maybe not.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      There certainly were facilities at Guam to handle nuclear weapons, but I believe they would not meet today’s standards such as WS3 vaults.

  6. Daryl Press (History)

    While I agree with Jeffrey that I see little net benefit in moving SSBNs very close to Korea, the broader argument that nearby nuclear capabilities are equally valuable as far-away capabilities isn’t right, in my opinion.

    Despite the public suggestions that the one and only mission of US NW is “deterrence”, nuclear counterforce / damage limitation remains an operational mission for the force. (And I think that’s eminently sensible.) Further, I would say that counterforce / damage limitation falls within the “deterrence” rubric. But whether or not one believes it *should* be a mission, it is one.

    Ballistic missiles, whether ICBMs or SLBMs, have operational limitations which air-delivered weapons can, in some circumstances, compensate for. If open sources are believed, yields are vastly different between the IC force and some air-delivered weapons. Accuracy is vastly different too. And ICBMs have restrictions regarding target coverage. What this means is that if certain types of targets are best suited for air-delivery, having forces nearby matters a lot, as nearby would greatly reduce flight time. And for those who say “flight time doesn’t matter,” remember, counterforce and damage limitation are a mission.

    There is a tendency to mock Japanese (and now ROK) officials who say they want “nearby” nuclear weapons. (Certainly the quotes in this story are filled with mis-statements, if they’re correctly translated.) But I had a Japanese official clarify to me that when they were pleading, for example, for “nearby TLAM/N” wasn’t because it was “nearby” per se, but because the alternative was a missile that would detonate with — in his words — “35 Hiroshima’s” of power. The Japanese are not foolish; their political circumstances make it hard for them to talk about their requirements in terms of “yield” — “proximity”, on the other hand, gives them a less “radioactive” manner of speaking about their deterrent needs.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I agree that air-delivered B-61s would offer useful delivery options that Minutemen and Trident do not, and having them immediately available would thus at least marginally enhance both US deterrence and US nuclear warfighting capability on the Korean peninsula. Also, any such weapon immediately available in the Korean theater, is a weapon that has been committed to that theater rather than a general, global capability; that’s a good way to signal commitment. Were I the President of the ROK, I might sleep a little bit better knowing that there were a couple dozen B-61s in bunkers at Kunsan AFB.

      But, unless Joongang Ilbo imagines the United States is going to have an aircraft carrier permanently patrolling the Sea of Japan, that isn’t what we are talking about here.

      “American vessels equipped with nuclear weapons”, patrolling Korean waters, is simply bizzare. Since 1992, the only American vessels equipped with nuclear weapons have been SSBNs and maybe aircraft carriers. SSBNs are by nature global forces, and their geographic deployment is by nature secret; it really does not matter where they are deployed. Aircraft carriers, we’ve got one homeported at Yokosuka, Japan, under the standard “we’re not telling if there are nukes in the magazines” disclaimer, but it doesn’t permanently patrol Korean, Japanese, or even East Asian waters.

      The idea seems to be that we are going to have a submarine or cruiser armed with nuclear cruise missiles that does permanently patrol Korean waters. That’s kind of silly on the grounds that A: we don’t have any of those left and B: if we did, they wouldn’t really offer any significant capability that SSBNs don’t already offer.

      If the ROK wants us to occasionally surface an SSBN close offshore to give them a warm fuzzy, we can probably accomodate them without too much trouble, but it would be a minor aggravation for the USN and no real benefit for the ROK.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      First, a nuclear-armed B2 can reach North Korea from Missouri. So, you can have any range of yields against any target within a few hours. That’s not noticeably worse than the spin-up and flight time for the (defunct) TLAM/N.

      Second, there are probably no low-yield options against North Korea. The targets that would be worth hitting are underground, which means the highest yields in the force, not the lowest ones, to crush bunkers. I suspect the efforts to suppress North Korean missile launches are almost certainly conventional, as they involve hunting mobile ballistic missiles.

      Third, I am not sure your claim about accuracy is correct for the various systems as they exist now — although the LEP’ed B61 might be better.

    • Daryl Press (History)

      To be clear, I wasn’t defending the garbled claim in the article that the US is currently leaving NW in ROK waters. For all the reasons Jeffrey said in his original post, and which Jeffrey and John articulated in response to my post, that claim makes no sense (ie, for the US, Naval nukes = SSBNs, and I agree it doesn’t make sense to move them so close to Korea.)

      I was responding to the argument made several times within Jeffrey’s original post, and often made in many places by many people, that proximity doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to beat up Jeffrey; I think he understands all this just fine. But his post said things like:

      “The B-2 can reach targets from North Korea to Iran directly from Missouri, which is what the United States did in the early stages of operations against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The only rationale for forward-basing is to permit more sorties – something of interest only in ongoing conventional operations.”

      — the other rationale is to permit quicker response. Sure you get a quick response with an IC or SL, but those are quick responses with huge yields. Forward-basing air-delivered allows quicker responses with the range of yields.

      “The flight-time argument is impenetrable to me. Setting aside what difference minutes or hours might make in various nuclear-use scenarios, the flight time for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile is minutes.”

      — Right, which is why neither you nor I see an advantage to moving SSBNs closer. But that’s different than rejecting the whole flight-time argument. Flight time from Missouri >> flight time from Guam >> flight time from ROK. There are disadvantages to forward basing, too, but too many other people reject out of hand the “proximity” argument without thinking carefully about the implications of distance on response time, and the implication of response time for damage limitation.

      “The whole Guam nonsense leaves unaddressed the inaccurate belief on the part of many South Koreans that extended deterrence functions better if there are weapons “close by.”

      — That’s exactly the sort of claim I’m referring to. Smart ROK observers may very reasonably believe that it is valuable to have weapons nearby — and particularly valuable to have the most palatable ones nearby (eg, lower-yield, which currently means air-delivered).

      On Jeffrey’s statement about low-yield not being important for DPRK scenarios because of underground facilities — I’m not convinced. But that would take this thread in a very different direction, far from the original post. (I’m happy to oblige if people want to go that direction.)

      On accuracy: Yes, B-61 LEP would help more. But I think one can deliver even a dumb bomb B-61 more accurately than the accuracies typically given for Trident II / D-5. By a factor of 3-4. And that’s just focusing on 2 dimensions of inaccuracy; bombs also probably have less HoB uncertainty than fast-moving RVs.

      My overall point: people generally dismiss proximity as a valuable attribute in a nuclear force because they say: “who cares if the hammer-from-god retaliatory strike arrives in 22 minutes or 22 hours or 22 days.” But that question reflects the fact that a huge part of our community has forgotten that in reality NW have a broader role than punitive retaliation. Further, those who understand that point still often say, “who cares if the counter-force strike comes from a sub or ICBM or a plane”; but they forget that only planes, today, provide a wide range of yield options for the US. The “proximity doesn’t matter” conventional wisdom is a product of our community’s drift away from focusing on the actual, operational missions that we and our allies require that these weapons be able to execute — in service of that amorphous term: “deterrence.”

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > Second, there are probably no low-yield options against North Korea. The targets that would be worth hitting are underground, which means the highest yields in the force, not the lowest ones, to crush bunkers.

      Surface burst of high-yield weapons, particularly US ones that are thought to be very fission-y, sounds like lots and lots of fallout spreading near and far. Are there any models available on this?

    • Stephen Young (History)

      Doh! Commented in the wrong place. My comment about accuracy of B61-12 supposed to go down here.

  7. Rob Goldston (History)

    We are going exactly where we don’t want to go with this discussion. US military protection of S. Korea should not involve nuclear weapons. We have plenty of conventional firepower for counter-force use, and we are not barbaric enough to respond to a dictator who makes Charlie Chaplin’s look sane by killing his frightened and hungry countrymen and women.

    • Daryl Press (History)

      That’s not a view that’s terribly empathetic to our friends in the ROK. We’ve asked the S. Koreans to place an awful lot of faith in us: “Dont get your own nukes, even though you live next to a nuclear-armed tyrant. Let us be your nuclear deterrent”! That’s a pretty staggering request we’ve made.

      Don’t you think it would be reasonable of the S. Koreans to say: “OK, but make sure you have nukes that you can use promptly to protect us as effectively as possible in case the North starts attacking us — and ones that won’t irradiate us in the process.”

      If we adopt your view and intend to reply to NK nuclear use with conventional weapons, don’t we owe it to our allies to tell them that, because we’ve currently implied to them otherwise. Then they’d at least be free to make their own fully-informed decision about how best to defend themselves.

      The “don’t talk about useability” sentiments run squarely against the policy of preventing proliferation by our allies by extending deterrence — unless we’re just lying to our friends around the world, and not preparing to protect them, as we promise.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, we owe it to be honest to them about the role that nuclear weapons do and do not play. My criticism of about sixty years of extended deterrence is that we are consistently dishonest with our allies and, in important ways, ourselves.

      Our allies aren’t stupid — well most officials in most foreign governments aren’t at any rate — so it makes little sense to say things that aren’t true or avoid correcting misperceptions.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Also “… and ones that won’t irradiate us in the process.”

      We don’t have any if those, particularly of we want to dig Fatso out of his Fuhrerbunker.

    • Pavel (History)

      It’s understandable that South Korea is nervous. But the smart thing to do is for the U.S. (and S. Korea) to openly rule out nuclear use (including Missouri-based). This would bring quite a bit of sanity in the situation without changing the military realities.

    • John Schilling (History)

      With nuclear weapons, we can directly impose regime change without needing boots on the ground, by causing all of the regime’s top figures to be really dead. Without nuclear weapons, we can’t do that – the key targets are all buried too deep. This seems to be a change in military realities.

      Also, with nuclear weapons, we can cause every ordinary soldier, policeman, and bureaucrat on the surface of North Korea to believe they too will be dead in the very near future unless everyone surrenders. We could conceivably do this with conventional weapons as well, but it would require an awful lot of them and it would be inconsistent with the implied ethics of a “no nukes ever” policy, so I consider this one to be a change in military realities as well.

      Even if a workable plan can be found within these constraints, they do reflect real and substantial changes in the military realities. And I’d be more confident that a viable non-nuclear plan could be found, if its proponents would start by acknowledging that the presence or absence of nuclear weapons really does change things that matter.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I think we should make several distinct scenarios here; one, a potential “first use” scenario by NK, and second, us considering preempting NK nuclear weapons with a nuclear attack on missile facilities.

      A third scenario of nuclear response to non-nuclear invasion seems just unwise, even if NK roll across the DMZ or out of tunnels in force and take control of a lot of territory.

      A fourth nightmarish scenario would be that they open up on Seoul with their long range conventional artillery en masse and conventional counterbattery efforts fail. This is one of the few “nuclear weapons might be tactically useful” scenarios left on earth. In scenario three, there is time to trade space/territory and respond conventionally. Not so with Seoul.

      For the preemption scenario, we need to consider who NK might threaten and how. Threatening the US brings our NMD into play; our interceptir system and inventory seem to give us credible defences (not guaranteed effective, but “good chance we can stop anything they fire”).

      They could also threaten Tokyo or Seoul with shorter range missiles, but those are more vulnerable to existing theatre and tactical interceptors.

      I think it is a defensible position that abstract but serious threats like those be handled either diplomatically or with non-nuclear counterforce.

      I think it is an arguable position that it would be better to rely on defenses or conventional counterforce if we detected a launch order and KN-08 being readied for nuclear launch against us (or some other nuclear missile against Tokyo or Seoul). This is a great argument for SK cruise missiles or US conventional TLAM on subs nearby.

      That is not a slam dunk, though. If it’s a real attack and defences fail a million people could die. For SK or Japan those are their capitals. Traded off with the risks to world stability of a western first use, of intelligence failure on our part, the guaranteed nuclear fallout, etc.

      In the case of “they launched a nuclear attack”, and either it detonated somewhere or we have plutonium from intercept debris, it’s much different. At that point, continued existence of the regime and its nuclear forces are an unacceptable risk to everyone else on the world. I would abstractly prefer bringing that about conventionally, but that may not be effective or fast enough. Deterrence HAS failed, we’re in Nuclear War Two. If we can fight the war conventionally and fast enough, so be it, but we’re in a nuclear war. It may actually limit the chances of there being another future nuclear war after this one if we use nukes to end the regime, though this point is also disputed.

    • Daryl Press (History)

      My concerns mostly fall into George’s scenario #1. We’re beating NK in a conventional war, and they escalate. Now proximity matters. Because all the really fast stuff — the ICBMs and SLBMs — are giant yield and will create a ton of fallout

      By “matters” here I’m talking about minimizing the number of hits that Japan and ROK suffer. The only way it doesn’t matter, in my mind, is if we’ve secretly (a) groomed some of the warheads on the subs to detonate with low yield, perhaps primary only, AND (b) we’ve secretly vastly upgraded the accuracy of the Trident IIs, from about 100m to a third of that. In those two things are both true, I’m inclined to think that proximity doesn’t much matter.

      So when Japan says “please don’t remove the nearby TLAM/Ns”, or when ROK officials say some strange sounding stuff mixed with some factual misunderstandings, we should have more empathy. It’s them that face conventional war risks in their back hard that could easily escalate, and its us who may not be providing the sort of capabilities that are Key to protecting them if the feathers fly — after requiring them to stay non-nuclear to remain our ally.

    • Jeffrey (History)


      One of the reasons I don’t think my view at all that insulting to the South Koreans is that I think you have some of the same misperceptions they do — and you are certainly not stupid or foolish. Indeed, you are probably much better informed that the vast majority of ROK policymakers about US nuclear policy. At the very least, one of us is wrong — and that is because we don’t have access to classified plans regarding the employment of nuclear weapons. Neither do ROK officials. I support efforts to tell them more. My claim that the process poorly serves them is intended to be an empathetic one.

      I believe the only targets in Korea against which the US would employ nuclear weapons are hard and deeply buried targets, a mission that requires very high yield warheads such as the B61-11 or a one megaton B83. The W76 may now also participate in these roles, since it has a fancy radar fuse that should allow it detonate very close to a ground burst.

      If one were to use a B61 on its lowest setting (or the now-defunct TLAM/N W80 on its low setting), the only applicable targets would be soft (given poor accuracy of both) and fixed (given issues with flight time). The TLAM/N, when it was in service, would have flown an ingress route of several hundred kilometers to arm at a top speed of 800-900 km/hour, in addition to “spin up” time to ready the cruise missile. (It is the clobbering issue during ingress, along with maintenance costs, that, as far as I can tell, discouraged the Navy.)

      Soft, fixed targets would be vulnerable to conventional munitions with better accuracy.

      So, when Japan asks us not to remove a system that has already been retired and that we would not have used in any event, I believe the empathetic response is to offer them a genuine explanation of what capabilities and plans we do have, rather than making a hollow promise about forward deploying B2s to Guam or pretending that an SSN might really have a nuclear-armed TLAM/N aboard.

    • Daryl Press (History)


      We both favor telling the ROK the truth about our capabilities and limitations as it relates to deterrence. Seriously: we’re on the same page on this entirely. But we may disagree with what the truth is. So I’ll be specific. I think this is the truth:

      If, in a couple years, if there is a conventional war on the Peninsula and NK uses one or more NW to get us to stop our operations and not go to Pyongyang to “Saddamize” Kim (credit to Keir for that evocative term), then the ROK, Japan, and U.S. will quickly be faced with a powerful desire to destroy NK nuclear forces and preventing further attacks — if possible.

      * We could initiate a conventional-only counterforce attack to try to protect ROK and JPN, but a mixed conventional-nuclear strike would have a higher chance of rapidly destroying NK’s ability to launch more nuclear strikes on its neighbors.

      * Of our nuclear options, however, *any* US attack using ICBMs or SLBMs against hardened NK targets — whether we use surface burst or air bursts — will create substantial fallout which may drift over the ROK because the warheads (according to open sources) are such high yields. Using simple equations from Glasstone, one can show that high-yield warheads cannot destroy hardened targets without being below the fallout threshold and, thus, creating considerable fallout. The exact amount of fallout and its direction will depend on the location of the targets and direction and speed of the wind, but there is a significant chance that U.S. strikes on NK will cause lethal levels of fallout across parts of the ROK. Disaster. In my mind, this means that high-yield U.S. nuclear warheads are essentially useless for the mission of holding NK hardened targets at risk (unless US cities are being struck).

      * According to open-sources (which may not be correct), the *only* low-yield nuclear options for the U.S. — meaning the *only* U.S. nuclear options that can be used against hardened targets yet remain near/above the fallout threshold — are air-delivered weapons. If they’re flown from Minot or Whiteman, they’re 12+ hours of flight time away from their target, plus time for mission planning. That’s a bad counterforce option.

      * I don’t agree that lower-yield weapons add no meaningful capabilities relative to conventional-only options. Certainly, If one is attacking buried bunkers with blast doors near the surface, the most effective option is a high-yield nuke, surface detonation, to crater the bunker…but that option would come at a terrible cost in terms of fallout. I believe that clever weaponeers at stratcom can find ways to target such facilities with “tactical” yield weapons in a fashion that would create much less fallout than the crater option, and yet create better damage expectancy than they could achieve using conventional weapons alone.

      * So, in my view, the “truth” that we should tell the ROK is this: our high-yield ICBMs and SLBMs can’t protect you. If we use them to stop the North from nuking you, we will irradiate you in the process ourselves. Our only meaningful nuclear options for protecting you are our low-yield options, and they’re far away and slow.

      Frankly, if I were South Korean I’d tell the U.S.: go get some better capabilities for defending us, or we’ll build them ourselves. That might be bad for U.S. policy, but it might actually be the best path for the ROK.


    • Pavel (History)

      >I believe that clever weaponeers at stratcom can find ways to target such facilities with “tactical” yield weapons in a fashion that would create much less fallout than the crater option, and yet create better damage expectancy than they could achieve using conventional weapons alone

      Ah, those clever weaponeers at Stratcom… Nothing can stop them, even the laws of physics.

    • Kingston (History)


      You write that “On Jeffrey’s statement about low-yield not being important for DPRK scenarios because of underground facilities — I’m not convinced.” I’d be interested in your view as to why you find this assessment ( unconvincing.

      I read with interest your and Keir’s recent article in Strategy Studies Quarterly. I expected a detailed rebuttal of the claims of your critics that meaningful damage limitation is not possible against mobile missiles. Yet the following was all I found on the mobile missile challenge:

      Lastly, many key counter-force targets are mobile. In those cases, nuclear weapons allow for greater “target location uncertainty” (when the target has moved since being observed) compared to their conventional counterparts.12

      And here’s the footnote:

      12. Low-yield nuclear weapons could be detonated at altitudes that would create a sufficiently large lethal area on the ground against mobile missile systems to account for the target location uncertainty that is often created by lags between “sensor,” “shooter,” and “munition arrival” without subjecting large areas of enemy territory to destruction and without creating fallout.

      I assume you and Keir have performed some kind of analysis to support your conclusion that low-yield nukes could make up for, e.g., imperfect intelligence about the location of mobile missiles. I’d be interested in some more detail on this.

      Finally, I’m still having trouble understanding how your beefed-up low-yield counterforce approach would strengthen deterrence (leaving aside for the moment (1) the question of whether you could effectively use low-yield weapons and (2) the costs of this approach).

      Let’s say, as you posit, that the US gets in a conventional conflict with North Korea and that faced with the prospect of being dragged through the streets and shot in the head a la Qaddafi, Kim Jong Un threatens to use or actually uses one or two nuclear weapons against the US homeland, a US ally in the region, or US deployed forces in the region in an attempt to get Washington to cease its military campaign.

      Presumably, Kim Jong Un would understand that the use of one or two nuclear weapons would ultimately result in the end of his regime, either through the US use of conventional weapons and/or nuclear weapons. The idea that the North could somehow force a stalemate through such coercive escalation is in my view wishful thinking. Now your response might plausibly be that in the time it takes us to destroy the regime after it uses nuclear weapons, the young lad might launch a few more nukes at us before we remove him from power. In that case the South Koreans might be happier if we had low-yield options available to destroy some of the North’s remaining WMD – instead of having to rely solely on high-yield options.

      But as I said, my bigger question is how does this contribute to “deterrence”? In other words, how would better low-yield counterforce options deter the young lad from coercive nuclear escalation in the first place? Is your view that with the right low-yield options we could eliminate ALL of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and supporting infrastructure in a disarming first strike with few casualties, thereby negating the young lad’s deterrent (though there would still be the matter of what North Korea could do to Seoul with conventional weapons)? Is your claim that better low-yield or counterforce options would provide us with a degree of escalation dominance that would give the young lad pause (even if we couldn’t get all his nukes)? If so, where’s the evidence that Kim Jong Un is undeterred by a W88, but scared stiff of a dialed down B61?

      Or is your argument simply that after deterrence fails, we should have the ability to nuke some, but likely not all, of the North’s remaining nukes and supporting infrastructure without rendering the entirety of the Korean Peninsula (and probably parts of Southeast China) inhospitable for hundreds of years?

  8. archjr (History)

    “We did not own nuclear weapons just to get someone’s recognition,” the North [Korean spokesman] said, calling its arsenal “an all-powerful sacred sword that protects national sovereignty and security.” (NYT, today).

    OK, so here’s an idea, designed to provoke: Why don’t we put nukes on the back burner? Why don’t we lower the current temperature and, better yet, ignore them? We certainly need to scotch all the silly talk about reintroducing nukes to the South.

    It’s pretty apparent that the North will not give up nukes in exchange for anything, at least not in any meaningful verification terms that would prevent a breakout at a later date. We tried this with the Agreed Framework, got little, and are back to worse than where we started. This whole thing is like getting bit by a dog twice and wondering what your own problem is. Six-party talks were created to build a united front against nukes, and have not met in six years.

    Less provocative question: what’s the downside in engaging the NORKS with LESS emphasis on nukes instead of more in the form of new sanctions? I imagine the Chinese wonder sincerely what the hell we think we are doing, and how getting involved in the same tit-for-tat trap will advance their interests.

    And no, I am not crazy Dennis Rodman under a pseudonym on a serious website.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      archjr wrote:
      Less provocative question: what’s the downside in engaging the NORKS with LESS emphasis on nukes instead of more in the form of new sanctions? I imagine the Chinese wonder sincerely what the hell we think we are doing, and how getting involved in the same tit-for-tat trap will advance their interests.

      The Chinese wrote the latest UNSC sanctions resolution, as I recall. It’s hardly fair to blame the US for their wording.

      If China’s their only friend left, it appears they’re reaching the “tough love” part of friendship. The question is whether that ties in to the SK public posturing or not, directly or indirectly.

  9. George William Herbert (History)

    Wonk discussions aside, the US has certainly not wagged its ginormous nuclear arsenal at NK during the relevant period.

    The call for wagging is coming from SK, who feel threatened by an unstable proliferator to their north.

    Who are on the short list of potential proliferators if they do not feel adequately covered by the US umbrella.

    We have two concerns here. One, continuing to contain and deter NK, and two, convincing SK not to proliferate.

    The number of nightmare scenarios between a nuclear NK and nuclear SK (“they shelled an island / sank a frigate, then…” ) is easy to imagine.

    • archjr (History)

      We have a Special Representative of the President for Human Rights in North Korea. We chase every bank transaction they make, and shadow every ship and plane. They continue to make us jump at their every nonsensical utterance, as their nukes may, or may not, become more threatening. They think they are a nuclear nation, and so they may well be.

      Wonk discussions aside, I suspect they are mainly jerking us around with the last lasso they have. I say we ignore them, put a nice menu out there (again) that we can all agree on, and leave the f*cking basketball on their side of the court.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Is there a limit to the number of South Koreans they can kidnap or murder before you’ll accept that it is legitimate to start paying attention to them? Does that limit change if they start killing Americans again instead of just Koreans?

      On the list of things that we really ought to be honest with our allies about, that one is pretty close to the top.

      Also, if they are A: building nuclear missiles to capture our attention and B: killing people to capture our attention, there is an obvious and unpleasant failure mode to the “never pay attention” strategy.

  10. Stephen (History)

    I didn’t read that article as SK warning NK. I read it as SK warning the US that if things continue to deteriorate, then SK might be tempted to get its own nukes.

  11. Stephen Young (History)

    Bob Burns of AP tweeted “@PentagonPresSec draws attention to U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber missions over SKorea. Calls this “very strong signal” to North amid tensions.”

    I don’t know if that was the nuclear-capable B-52 or not – but I’m guessing the DPRK does not know either.

    George, so much for the United States NOT wagging the nuclear threat at the DPRK.

    • Anon2 (History)

      What can a conventional B-52 drop to stop NK artillery from bombarding Seoul?

      My guess is quite a lot of “shock and awe” and maybe a bit of carpet bombing of troops coming across gaps to the south of the 38th parallel, but there are not enough laser designators to take significant artillery out with the 50 x 1000 pound bombs being dumped in a single sortie.

      In the medium run, SK may accept large conventional damage to Seoul while they wait for their conventional troops to spike the NK artillery. Hopefully they can withdraw the civilians to the south or hide them in bunkers during this bombardment phase.

      If it goes nuclear with a small number of NK weapons, SK still wins conventionally. If the NKs have a large number of weapons, it may be necessary to use tactical nukes to end any standoff.

      Bottom line — SK wins but at large cost either way. NK cannot win and the logistics probably indicate that their army starves out in 2 to 4 weeks — joining the other 10 million starving already. NK has to win fast or they loose.

      I don’t think NK can win even with 3 or 4 nukes. If they have 40 to 50, it is a different story — they can turn SK and the US troops stationed there into a mass disaster that will never recover. At that point (if NK pulls the nuclear trigger first), the only prudent think to do would be to arrange leadership change at all cost — tactical nukes and all. Otherwise, an emboldened NK will simply repeat the above with another country (Japan or the U.S.).

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Stephen Young wrote:
      I don’t know if that was the nuclear-capable B-52 or not – but I’m guessing the DPRK does not know either.

      I think all the B-52s in service are tri-nuclear-weapon capable with the ALCM/W80, B-61 bonb family variants, and B-83 bomb.

      George, so much for the United States NOT wagging the nuclear threat at the DPRK.

      Apparently. I don’t recall that we had done anything that explicit in the past, but these missions (apparently dating to March 8, though they just started being talked about now) are real and being explicitly posed that way.

    • Stephen Young (History)

      My apologies, George, you are (probably) right. I was thinking they had already started converting some of the fleet to the non-nuclear variant, but it is merely that the technical plan to do so has been approved. They apparently don’t plan to actually do the conversions until closer to the 2018 deadline.

      Because, you know, it is so useful to have 40+ nuclear bombers for things like flying over ROK.

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    Other shoe dropping: SK press and various lawmakers are now openly talking about a strategic decision to become a nuclear weapons state.

    If I had to categorize the situation, I would have to say that the Emperor’s Umbrella has insufficient fabric, despite there being a stick and well-connected ribs in place.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > SK press and various lawmakers are now openly talking about a strategic decision to become a nuclear weapons state.

      Which would take them how many months after the decision to do it were made?

      The answer probably depends on how much weapons-grade U235 or Pu239 they have on hand, in what form they have it, and/or how quickly they could produce it. I’m sure every state in the region has adequate bomb designs sitting in filing cabinets.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      They’re a lot further down the list than Japan is. Japan got everyone’s ok to have full fuel production and reprocessing cycle activities (IAEA monitored to the hilt, of course, but they have all the technology and industry) and large quantities of materials.

      SK has done some lab-scale (sub-gram quantities) experiments but not industrialized.

      They do have large quantities of LWR reactor spent fuel, from which a dirty industrial processing effort could extract significant quantities of RG Pu, which could with some effort either be used in bombs or be further purified to WG Pu. The fate of the US-SK nuclear cooperation agreement has apparently been stuck on whether SK could start industrial-scale reprocessing the fuel, so I believe they’ve been actively exploring the industrial processes and facilities needed to do that.

      I suspect that the NK bomb experience is throwing a slight wet towel on a lot of peoples “bomb-in-the-filing-cabinet” assumptions; having seen someone’s program more or less fail at a first test, the confidence in designs that haven’t been tested (at least cold / simulant tested) has to be somewhat lower than it might have been pre-2003. But that said, SK has a lot of very bright explosives engineers and physicists. They can probably throw 10x the people and 1000x the money at their program compared to NK, if they decide to go for it.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      If it is true, as has been widely mooted, that the NK approach to the bomb has been to minimize the amount of fuel used, that should undermine the notion that the almost certainly subpar first test is applicable to whether simpler, more robust ‘filing-cabinet’ designs will work. We have a pretty good idea from the positively ballistic reaction of the major powers to the Swiss Khan-network find that there is very sensitive stuff in those filing cabinets.

      To me it seems that the claims of a minimalist approach by NK are strongly supported by the public information that NK told the Chinese and Russians it would be a low yield test, ahead of time.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I would also add the defector testimony that the first bomb was an unreliable 1,000 kg device with 4kg of of Pu.

    • Magpie (History)

      At the risk of being horribly simplistic: it’s a dick thing.

      NK has viable nukes, SK rah-rah nationalism has been a bit on the rise, and some folks there are getting political mileage out of singing the “anything you can do I can do better” song. I really think this is all for domestic consumption. The US is politically supporting the less aggressive actors with their various acts of nuclear theatre, but in the end it’s really not ever going to be a serious option to use nuclear weapons against NK outside of a assured-destruction scenario. If the NK’s don’t use nukes, no-one else will, no matter what. Nor do they really need to.

      There is a danger that the issue will get traction in SK if it’s not hosed down fairly quickly, and I’m sure that’s why we’re getting the fly-overs and garbled assurances of the vicarious length and, yes, girth of nuclear powah available to anyone in SK who wants to fondle it, but from a war-fighting point of view it’s a bit of a non-issue. By the time the use of nukes against NK might be appropriate, it’s too late to stop unacceptable damage to SK, regardless of NK’s use or not of nuclear weapons. Same ol’ same ol’. Nothing much has changed.

      US nuclear support is not an umbrella, it never was. It’s a credible threat to go up there and punch the Rain Gods right in their stupid faces if they try anything.

  13. Bradley Laing (History)

    —-This is clearly a “can God make rock so big he cannot lift it” kind of question, but how do we know what is in the South Koreans file cabinets? No one would tell us if “Gauranteed to work on first try design No.1, Classified, May 10, 1954” had been stolen by South Korean agents from the U.S., would they?

  14. Takayuki Nishi (History)

    The American request to the S. Koreans is less staggering than Daryl put it. In full, it is, “If you wish to import civil nuclear fuel and technology from NPT member states and keep them, then don’t get your own nukes … Let us be your nuclear deterrent.”

    Any claim by S. Koreans (or Japanese) that “we’ll build them ourselves” is not credible unless they say they are willing to shut down nuclear power, return nuclear fuel and equipment to their source countries, withdraw from the NPT, and then build nuclear weapons without any material from NPT members. Elections in December 2012 showed that almost no S. Korean or Japanese both (a) favors nuclear armament and (b) is willing to forgo nuclear power now.

  15. archjr (History)

    I have a certain belief that the US-ROK nuclear agreement contains more possibilities than pitfalls. What some people forget is the degree to which programmatic consent to advanced fuel-cycle activities in Japan is tied to the Japanese program. To open a can of worms, this suggests that the ROK agreement could reflect, as a matter of principle, the economic and/or waste management considerations of the Korean program, frequently reviewed by both sides. I suspect that most Korean material is governed by US consent rights. And I am unaware, as George suggested above, of any industrial-scale plutonium processing plans that are mature at this point, though they will inevitably be driven in part by negotiations on the new agreement. If programmatic consent is offered, as I believe it must be, the question is the termsd of the program in and the terms of US consent. Korea is exploring all its options.

    Mark has argued persuasively that the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia since the conclusion of the US-Japan agreement almost three decades ago. I agree, but would also note the advent of the Additional Protocol, which Korea has signed. I believe the US-ROK agreement represents the same opportunity for setting the highest possible nuclear cooperation standards since the UAE deal, and can be a new “gold standard” for agreements between advanced nuclear nations. The tighter the link that is made between Korea’s program, economic and waste-management considerations, and inspections under the AP, the better off we all will be.

    @George: What I meant, and poorly said, is that we’re all at present on some nuclear alert from the DPRK not – yet -justified by what the intel suggests is their advancement as a nuclear weapons state. I see no reason not to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in negotiations in whatever forum by expanding the list of things to be discussed. I suspect this will provide opportunities to engage the reluctant partner among the six parties than the current path. I’ll bet it will be pretty difficult to get the Chinese on board for any new sanctions resolution beyond the present one.

  16. Dan (History)

    No nukes In S. Korea? I don’t know about the AF and Navy, but the Army had tactical nukes there back to at least the early 1970’s for the Nikes for air defense, the Honest John Rockets, and for 8-inch artillery. The Nikes, Honest Johns and the warheads are long gone. but the artillery isn’t and I would assume that the nuclear rounds at still in the storage facility there and in Guam.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The United States withdrew nuclear artillery from South Korea in 1991. The US retired all nuclear artillery and air defense systems, eliminating the warheads. The only “tactical” weapons in the stockpile are the W80 for the TLAM/N (soon to go) and the B61 Mods 3/4/10 (we’ll see).

    • George William Herbert (History)

      All the W-79 shells (8″ fission or ER) were retired in 1992, and dismantled by December 2003.

      W-48s were also disassembled by 2003-04. The earlier gun-type 8″ W-33 was disassembled by 1992.

      We have no remaining nuclear artillery.

  17. Hume's Bastard (History)

    “Sources in the South Korean military told the JoongAng Ilbo that a nuclear-armed submarine is a strong candidate.” In Korean, “nuclear-armed submarine” in the original is “핵탄두 장착이 가능한 핵추진 잠수함”, which is better translated as a nuclear-propelled submarine capable of mounting weapons with nuclear warheads. This the most specific reference to this vessels.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      So, it was “nuclear capable.” I thought something must have been lost in translation. Now, who’s going to tell the ROKs that there are no nuclear weapons for those nuclear-capable submarines.

  18. Miles Pomper (History)

    Seems like people are finally figuring out both in US media and in DPRK that we were talking about SSNs not SSBNs. From today’s New York Times..

    Nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, taking off from Guam, had previously flown missions over South Korea as part of joint military exercises. But this month, the Pentagon took the rare action of publicly announcing those missions to reaffirm the United States’ “nuclear umbrella” for South Korea and Japan at a time of rising anxiety over the North’s nuclear threats. South Korean news media also carried photos of an American nuclear-powered attack submarine making a port call at a South Korean naval base.

    “The U.S. should not forget that the Anderson Air Force Base on Guam, where B-52s take off, and naval bases in Japan proper and Okinawa, where nuclear-powered submarines are launched, are within the striking range of the DPRK’s precision strike means,” a spokesman of the Supreme Command of the North Korean People’s Army told the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Thursday.