SEOUL, South Korea ( Associated Press) — Is North Korea preparing to deploy tactical nuclear weapons along its tense border with South Korea, which is just minutes away from the 26 million people who live around Seoul, its capital?
That is what it looks like to many experts who are closely following the high-profile meeting of the North Korean military this week. The eventual deployment, just two months after leader Kim Jong-un’s veiled threat of preventive use of nuclear weapons, would be a major development in the years-long standoff on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea already has thousands of conventional weapons aimed at South Korea and nearly 30,000 US troops stationed there, but moving its short-range nuclear missiles to the border would be the clearest sign that Kim is looking to use his nuclear weapons to threaten both. South Korea and win concessions from outside nuclear negotiators.
Along with North Korea’s apparent preparations for its first nuclear test in five years, there is deep skepticism among observers that diplomacy can convince the country to give up nuclear weapons. Critics are calling on Seoul and Washington to formulate a new approach to North Korea’s rapidly improving nuclear program.
Here’s a look at Kim’s latest nuclear moves.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS ON THE BORDER?
During a military conference ended Thursday, Kim Jong-un and other senior officials confirmed additional “operational responsibilities” and “modified operational plans” for military units near the border with South Korea.
State media reports did not directly mention nuclear weapons. But outside experts say North Korea’s vague language signals its intention to forward deploy tactical nuclear weapons systems. They base their assessment in part on North Korea’s recent public comments about such plans, as well as a series of tests of short-range nuclear-capable missiles designed to hit strategic targets in South Korea, including US military bases.
One big hint came in April when North Korea tested a newly developed guided weapon that it says will improve the performance of “tactical nuclear weapons” and increase the firepower of forward artillery units. Later that month, Kim said he could use his nuclear program preemptively if provoked.
North Korea now has “a much better chance of using its tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield” if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, said Kim Yol-soo, an expert at South Korea’s Korea Institute of Military Affairs.
The weapons likely to be deployed on the border are some of the most mobile short-range solid-propellant missiles that North Korea has carried out since the failure of nuclear diplomacy with the United States in 2019. North Korea has labeled these missiles…which foreign experts say have the potential to bypass South Korea’s and US missile defenses as “tactical” weapons, implying its intention to equip them with lower-yield nuclear weapons.
North Korea has likely already acquired the technology to equip its missiles with nuclear warheads, so deployment of tactical nuclear weapons could happen at any time, said Kim Tae-woo, former head of the state-funded Korea National Unification Institute in Seoul.
Some experts, however, say that North Korea may not deploy nuclear missiles due to possible problems with their maintenance.
WILL SOUTH KOREA RESPOND WITH NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
North Korea’s apparent desire to deploy tactical nuclear weapons may be part of Kim Jong-un’s recent pledge to confront the United States “strength for strength” amid stalled nuclear diplomacy. It also comes at a time when Washington and Seoul are working to strengthen their joint defense capabilities to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threats.
South Korea’s new conservative government, which took office last month, said it would expand its conventional weapons capability and bolster its defenses with the United States.
Although Koreans have avoided major conflicts since the end of the Korean War of 1950–1953, there have been bloody skirmishes and attacks in recent years that have killed dozens of people.
North Korea has a history of escalating threats and provocations when a new government comes to power in South Korea or the US to create a potentially favorable environment for future negotiations. After that, the country often slowed down its rhetoric and launched an offensive with the help of charm.
It might happen this time.
But nuclear weapons on the front lines will make it harder for South Korea to respond to any future North Korean provocations.
New South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, during a summit with US President Joe Biden last month, secured a US commitment to regionally deploy US strategic assets such as long-range bombers and aircraft carriers in response to provocations from North Korea.
The allies could also hold their biggest joint military exercise in years in August.
But Yoon said he would not continue to develop nuclear weapons or ask the United States to redeploy nuclear weapons in South Korea as a deterrent to potential aggression from North Korea.
The South Korean military said it was closely monitoring North Korea’s actions in connection with the possible deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, but did not elaborate.
Some experts say North Korea’s expansion of tactical nuclear weapons and the pursuit of long-range missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland have reduced confidence in the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” even though the Biden administration has repeatedly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defending South Korea with its full range of military capabilities.
There are also calls for the redeployment of US nuclear weapons in South Korea.
“We must shift to a strategy to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear threat through a nuclear balance,” said Kim Tae-woo, former head of the Korea National Unification Institute. “The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons means that the nuclear threat from North Korea will be right in front of us.”
Tactical nuclear weapons were part of a five-year weapons development plan announced by Kim Jong-un last year. This year, he ramped up ballistic missile testing to an unprecedented pace to boost his country’s ability to attack both the US mainland and South Korea.
For weeks, U.S. and South Korean officials have noted signs of an imminent North Korean nuclear test, the first since 2017 and the seventh overall. Such a test could be part of an attempt to create a warhead that could fit in tactical or multi-warhead missiles.
But North Korea has yet to conduct such a test, possibly due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and opposition from China, its last major ally and biggest aid provider.
North Korea has so far rejected the Biden administration’s proposals for open-ended talks, urging Washington to first abandon its “hostile policy,” a term it uses for US-led economic sanctions and joint US-South Korean military exercises.
Experts say it’s only a matter of time before North Korea conducts a nuclear test, which is seen as a major step in expanding its nuclear arsenal under Kim’s five-year plan. Such a test is likely to further complicate the attempt to restart nuclear diplomacy.