At some point in the upcoming presidential debates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will (again) square off on the issue of national security. Recent polls indicate that security concerns–such as terrorism–rank low on the list of voter priorities, but that doesn’t lessen their importance.
And you don’t need to be a foreign policy wonk to understand why. As he ambles toward the exit, Barack Obama is leaving a world in shambles. His signature foreign policy achievement (the Iranian nuclear deal) has put the Islamic republic squarely on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, along with missiles capable of delivering those weapons to targets in Israel, Europe and eventually, the United States.
Elsewhere, Vladimir Putin is also on the march, considering more mischief in Ukraine, the Black Sea or the Baltics. Beijing is openly challenging the U.S. in the South China Sea, expanding its network of man-man islands, many of which have been fortified. Chinese leaders are even exploiting a personal rift between President Obama and his Filipino counterpart, cozying up to Manila which (until recently) was expressing grave concern about the PRC’s expansionist policies.
And did we mention the war against ISIS is far from won?
But in some respects, the most pressing security concerns can be found on the Korean peninsula. Last week, Pyongyang conducted its fifth nuclear test and the most powerful since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011. Intelligence analysts put the blast in the 10 kiloton range, roughly twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
If that isn’t troubling enough, the situation on the peninsula may get worse–possibly much worse. According to the UK Sun, some experts believe the DPRK may have enough material for up to 20 nuclear weapons by the end of the year. That would lend credence to Pyongyang’s claims that it could conduct additional nuclear tests “at any time.”
To be fair, such claims represent the upper range of North Korea’s potential nuclear capabilities. But it is clear that the Hermit Kingdom has made tremendous progress in its nuclear program; from the early tests that were only marginally successful almost a decade ago, Kim Jong-un’s scientists and engineers have created a system that can produce multiple devices each year, demonstrating greater explosive power with each succeeding generation of weapons. It is also likely that Pyongyang is making progress towards miniaturizing warheads, making it easier to fit them atop land and sea-based ballistic missiles, giving it more options for hitting targets in South Korea, Japan and beyond.
North Korea’s heightened WMD activity has clearly caught the attention of its neighbors. During a recent spate of DPRK missile tests, Japan threatened to shoot them down if they threatened its territory. Tokyo has made such vows in the past, but as North Korea launches missiles into the Sea of Japan with greater frequency, those promises have taken on a new urgency. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has six destroyers equipped with the Aegis system and standard missiles designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. Japan’s Aegis destroyers have been regular participants in joint missile defense exercises with the U.S. Navy, and Tokyo plans to upgrade its Patriot land-based SAMs before 2020. With over-lapping coverage, the Japanese are capable of engaging various types of North Korean missiles. The question becomes: when does Tokyo finally determine the missile tests post a sufficient threat to pull the trigger?
The issue is even more critical for South Korea, which lies just across the 38th parallel from Kim Jong-un’s growing nuclear and missile arsenals. In the wake of last week’s nuclear test, Seoul borrowed a page from the North Korean playbook and promised retaliatory strikes that would “erase” Pyongyang from the map, if the DPRK fired a nuclear missile at South Korea.
Seoul also announced plans for “decapitation” strikes as a part of its response, aimed at eliminating Kim Jong-un and other senior North Korean officials. While South Korea has a growing capability to conduct precision strikes, its ability to locate and eliminate North Korea’s supreme leader is doubtful, at best. Dictators have a knack for survival and resources that improve their odds of living to see another day.
It’s a lesson the U.S. learned during the first Gulf War, when we tried–and failed–to take out Saddam Hussein with a specially-planned decapitation mission. An eight-inch artillery shell, modified to function as a laser-guided bomb, was flown non-stop from California to Saudi Arabia, where it was uploaded on an F-111 that would target a bunker where the Iraqi dictator was believed to be hiding. Timing was so critical that the F-111 had already started its engines when the C-141 arrived with the weapon. The pilot and WSO were literally briefed in the cockpit on employing the weapon, and they did their job–the artillery shell-turned-LGB burrowed deep into the ground worked as advertised, destroying the bunker.
But there was only one problem. Saddam had moved to another location before the strike occurred. With almost limitless intelligence and operational resources, the U.S. found it almost impossible to accurately pin-point the location of the most important target in Iraq. South Korea would find it even more difficult to locate Kim Jong-un, who almost never announces his movements in advance, and has a vast network of underground facilities that offer protection from U.S. and ROK strikes.
Beyond plans to take out the North Korean dictator, it is very clear that Seoul is deeply concerned about its enemy’s rapidly-expanding nuclear arsenal and is willing to consider “unusual” steps to counter the threat. According to Ashai Shinbaum, the South Korean government approached the U.S. about “re-deploying” nuclear weapons to the peninsula, during bi-lateral talks conducted in May. A source familiar with the talks told the paper that ROK officials suggested an arrangement similar to those in western Europe, where NATO partners allow the U.S. to maintain nuclear weapons on their soil, at American-controlled installations. The host nation helps provide security for the weapons and offers advice on potential employment, but the ultimate operational decision rests with the U.S.
It is difficult to underestimate the gravity of the South Korean offer. The United States removed its nuclear weapons from the peninsula 25 years ago, and there was little consideration about a re-deployment–until the DPRK joined the nuclear club. Officials familiar with the recent talks say the U.S. rejected Seoul’s offer, fearing the reintroduction of nukes would further destabilize the region.
This may come as a surprise to members of the Obama national security team, but east Asia has devolved into a strategic mess during their watch. North Korea’s nuclear program has stoked new fears in South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan, raising whispers that some of those countries–perhaps all three–might develop their own nuclear weapons in response. Further south, China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea threatens trade routes used to carry trillions of dollars in raw materials and finished goods each year. Outside of diplomatic rhetoric–and a slight increase in military patrols–there has been little response from Washington.
And that’s a major reason regional tensions are boiling over from the Korean peninsula to the Malacca Strait. With American leadership largely absent, hostile regime are aggressively pursuing their agendas. Meanwhile, our allies feel betrayed and alone, forcing them to consider options that were unthinkable a few years ago.
That’s why a debate moderator should ask Clinton and Trump if they would support a re-deployment of nuclear weapons to South Korea, along with our willingness to use WMD to protect our allies in the region. It’s a choice that will face the next president, perhaps very early in their administration.