(LEAD) N.K.'s latest nuclear test could give rise to calls for tactical nuclear weapons in S. Korea
(ATTN: ADDS comment from House Armed Services committee chairman in paras 12-13)
WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's surprise nuclear test could give rise to calls for redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea and pave the way for discussions on the possibility of fielding a THAAD missile defense unit to the South, sources said Wednesday.
North Korea stunned the world with an announcement that it has successfully carried out its first hydrogen bomb test, claiming that the country "proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states possessed of even an H-bomb."
The latest test marked the North's fourth nuclear test following three previous ones in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
"If the North had indeed succeeded in a hydrogen bomb test, it cannot help but be a game changer," a diplomatic source in Washington said. "It could lead to growing calls for strengthening South Korea's nuclear deterrent capabilities on the assumption that it would be difficult to prevent the North from becoming a nuclear power."
The U.S. withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s. Since then, the South has relied on the U.S. nuclear umbrella or extended deterrence to defend against a nuclear North Korea.
Every time the North conducted a nuclear test, it raised calls for redeploying American tactical nuclear weapons. But such demands have flatly been dismissed as a nonstarter by both governments. However, such calls could be raised stronger now than before.
"This incident could give rise to demands that have been considered a taboo in the mainstream," the source said, referring to calls for bringing U.S. nuclear weapons back to the South to cope with the North's nuclear weapons.
It could also pave the way for the beginning of discussions between South Korea and the U.S. about deploying a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery to the South, sources said.
It is no secret that the U.S. also wants to deploy a THAAD unit to South Korea, where some 28,500 American troops are stationed, to better defend against ever-growing threats from North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
But the issue has been put aside due to its diplomatic sensitivity after as China sees a potential THAAD deployment as a threat to their security interests and have increased pressure on Seoul to reject such a deployment.
Seoul and Washington have maintained they have never held any formal consultations on the issue.
"The U.S. must work with our South Korean allies to deploy missile defense systems, including THAAD, on the peninsula and work at home to strengthen our homeland missile defenses," said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement.
"We must also take immediate steps to strengthen our own nuclear deterrent, which is the foundation for our other defense capabilities," he said.
As North Korea has kept advancing its nuclear capabilities, some have cautiously raised the need so far for redeploying American tactical nuclear weapons back to the South.
In May last year, Clark Murdock, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a report that forward deploying a robust set of discriminate nuclear response options conveys the message that the United States will respond in kind and proportionately to nuclear attacks on its allies.
"How credible will U.S. security commitments be in 2025-2050, both to its adversaries and its allies?" the researcher said in the report. "After North Korea's nuclear test in February 2013 and statements by the United States that it would not consider redeploying tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula, 66 percent (10 percentage points higher than in 2010) of the South Korean public supported a domestic nuclear weapons program," he said.
Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, also claimed in May last year that external geopolitical and internal domestic political circumstances could lead to "trusted allies, such as South Korea or Japan" developing nuclear weapons.
"If the United States were perceived to not be able to reliably and credibly counter the threats posed by China and North Korea, prudent military planners in Japan and South Korea would want to take steps to have their own nuclear capabilities," Ferguson said in a report.
"Finally, if Japan crosses the threshold to nuclear weapon acquisition, South Korea would feel compelled to follow suit. South Korean leaders would then not want to be vulnerable to both nuclear-armed North Korea and Japan," he said.
But Henry Sokolski, a leading nonproliferation expert, said last year that redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea "is not the way to strengthen" the security alliance.
He stressed that thanks to advances in military science there now are "much safer ways to maintain America's nuclear guarantee without employing actual warheads on Korean soil."
The North's latest nuclear test could even rekindle calls for a preemptive strike on the North.
Mitchel Wallerstein, president of Baruch College in New York who served as a senior nonproliferation official at the Pentagon, said in an article last month that one of the three policy options with regard to the North is to "state an intention to use pre-emptive military action if the DPRK ignores the warning."
"I served in the Department of Defense during this period, and it undertook active contingency planning to prepare for the destruction of the reactor," he said in the article. "Ultimately, however, a kinetic solution became unnecessary" as the U.S. and the North reached an aid-for-nuclear free deal in 1994, known as "Agreed Framework," he said.