(Economist) It may settle for more powerful conventional arms instead.
THE runaway pace of North Korea’s nuclear development has confounded predictions and diverted the attention of world leaders. It is also meddling with one North Korean grandmother’s retirement plans. Ri Chun Hee, a veteran broadcaster at Korean Central Television, was promised a rest in 2012, after 41 years gleefully reading out propaganda. The 74-year-old would only return for significant announcements. Yet these now come most weeks. North Korea has already tested 22 missiles this year. On September 3rd Mrs Ri was back, claiming the regime had tested a hydrogen bomb (see article). It was, she declared with trademark exuberance, the “perfect” explosion.
Mrs Ri is not the only cold war relic that could be put back into service as a result of the test. Some South Koreans want America to show its support by moving nuclear weapons back to their country. The White House put 950 of them there after the Korean war, but withdrew them in 1991. Soon afterwards both Koreas agreed to keep nuclear weapons off the peninsula. But the North has long flouted the deal, testing its first bomb 11 years ago. Liberty Korea, the South’s biggest opposition party, called in August for the weapons to be redeployed. Hong Joon-pyo, its leader, reiterated the demand two days after the latest test.
South Koreans are growing less certain that they can entrust their security to America. A poll by the Pew Research Centre in June found that 78% of South Koreans have no confidence in Donald Trump to “do the right thing” in world affairs. His response to the latest test will have done little to assuage these fears. James Mattis, his defence secretary, warned Mr Kim that a threat to America or its allies would prompt “a massive military response”. But Mr Trump, who had earlier mused about ditching a free-trade agreement with South Korea, chose instead to criticise Moon Jae-in, the South’s president, who has called for talks with the North. “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work,” he tweeted. For Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, “that was exactly the wrong response.”
Not fickle, but fissile
Mr Hong argues that redeploying nuclear weapons would be proof of America’s will to defend the South. Several conservative newspapers have endorsed the notion. One big one, Joongang Ilbo, said the move would “raise our trust in the United States”. A poll in August found that only 27% of South Koreans favour keeping their country nuclear-free. On September 4th Song Young-moo, the defence minister, said asking for the weapons was “one alternative” that should be reviewed. He mentioned public demand for the idea in a recent meeting with Mr Mattis.
Another option is for South Korea to acquire its own nuclear weapons. It tried this twice in the 1970s but was pressed by America to stop. Experts believe it could have its own bomb within three years if it chose to do so. Most South Koreans have been keen on the idea for two decades. Another paper, Chosun Ilbo, said the government must consider it: “A nuclear threat must be met with a nuclear deterrent. There is no other option.”
Yet South Korea will probably remain nuclear-free. Making its own bombs could jeopardise the alliance with America and risk sanctions for violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of 1968. Mr Moon and his party continue to oppose asking the Americans for some of theirs. Even if they change their minds, American generals are unlikely to back such a scheme.
America has plenty of nuclear weapons capable of striking the North—from submarines, bases on Guam or even the American mainland. Putting them in the South would antagonise China and Russia just as America is trying to enlist their help to press the North to abandon its drive for long-range nuclear weapons. This week at the United Nations, America circulated a resolution that would bar exports of oil to North Korea, most of which come from China, and which is the one plausible means left to rein in the North. “From an American perspective, it [deploying nuclear weapons in the South] is unnecessary and dangerous,” says David Straub, a former American diplomat now at the Sejong Institute, another think-tank.
Mr Moon is far more likely to boost conventional defences. He has reversed his earlier opposition to THAAD, an American anti-missile system. Four more launchers were installed soon after the latest test. Mr Moon has also persuaded Mr Trump to lift a limit on the range and payload of its (non-nuclear) missiles, allowing the South’s army to deploy more powerful ones, eg, able to destroy bunkers.
“Kim Jong Un must not be allowed to sleep easy,” cried Chosun Ilbo, referring to the North’s leader. Mr Moon hopes to persuade South Koreans that they, at any rate, still can. That should be relatively easy. By mid-week a qualifying match for the football World Cup had bumped North Korea from the top three search terms on Naver, South Korea’s answer to Google. Passers-by in Gwanghwamun, a square in the centre of Seoul, were not fretting about an imminent apocalypse. Asked to judge the current atmosphere in the capital, a middle-aged man replied, “The pollution isn’t as bad these days.”