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(News Focus) U.S. nuclear posture document sends stern warning to N. Korea: experts

2018/02/04 16:47

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SEOUL, Feb. 4 (Yonhap) -- The latest U.S. nuclear posture document has sent a clear warning to North Korea that Washington could opt for preventive strike options with more easily usable nuclear weapons, experts said Sunday.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Defense unveiled its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), in which it mentioned the development of new weapons such as "low-yield" nuclear warheads and the mobilization of nuclear-capable radar-evading F-35 fighters.

Analysts said the low-intensity nuclear platform could make Washington more tempted to consider using nuclear arms first, even in response to a conventional attack, though the NPR stated that nuclear weapons will be employed only in "extreme circumstances."

   "The latest NPR is a very stern warning to the North considering that it warns that any North Korean attack against the U.S. and its allies will result in the end of its regime," Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, told Yonhap News Agency.

"What it (NPR) talks about is that tactical nuclear weapons with low-yield warheads could be used not just in a retaliatory strike following an attack, but also in a preventive strike against the North," he added.

The NPR points out that the U.S. will develop a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead for deployment to ensure a prompt response option that is able to "penetrate adversary defenses."

   Nuclear policymakers have long been striving to find political purposes, moral justification and military utility for nuclear weapons, as any use of nuclear weapons would lead to catastrophic results beyond redemption.

However, low-yield warheads will lower the psychological threshold for the use of nuclear arms. Their use will lead to much less damage in a limited war zone than nuclear exchanges involving high-yield strategic bombs, experts said.

"The NPR may hint that the U.S. will seek to develop low-yield warheads not just as tactical nukes only for the purpose of deterrence, but for actual military use," Park said.

"Former U.S. President George W. Bush once sought such tactical arms, but the Obama administration made a botched attempt for a no first use policy in line with his mantra of a nuclear-free world ... Now, the Trump administration is picking up from where Bush left off," he added.

Experts said the U.S. may aim to develop new nuclear arms with yields of 10 to 20 kilotons. A kiloton is equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT. Strategic nuclear arms capable of devastating a city or a country have yields of hundreds of kilotons.

The NPR's mention of low-yield warheads came amid Washington's reported pursuit of a "bloody nose" strategy aimed at launching limited strikes on some of Pyongyang's key military targets to instill psychological fears into the regime and prevent its provocations or aggression.

Some observers said nuclear weapons with low explosive power could dovetail with such an attack scheme.

Another notable point in the NPR that drew South Korean analysts' attention is its mention of "burden sharing" in joint deterrence efforts.

"The United States will coordinate integration activities with allies facing nuclear threats and examine opportunities for additional allied burden sharing of the nuclear deterrence mission," the NPR reads.

Some observers said the U.S. may seek to mobilize South Korea's "dual capable aircraft" –- which are capable of mounting both conventional and nuclear attacks -- in a range of missions to deter the North's nuclear aggression.

Seoul plans to bring in a fleet of 40 F-35 fighters from the United States for deployment here, and those fighters can be used as a platform for aerial nuclear military operations involving low-yield weapons systems, analysts said.

However, many cautioned that America's nuclear deterrence strategy, which originated from the Cold War era, may not work effectively when it handles potential adversaries like a highly unpredictable North Korea.

Cold War era nuclear strategies, ranging from a massive retaliation strategy to flexible response strategy to mutual assured destruction, have been based on the belief that adversaries would "think rationally and make rational choices," they noted.

This image provided by Yonhap News TV shows the U.S. nuclear posture document. (Yonhap) This image provided by Yonhap News TV shows the U.S. nuclear posture document. (Yonhap)

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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