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Well before being sworn in as President, Eisenhower was considering options to end the fighting in Korea. Eisenhower’s solution was to make it clear to the leadership in Russia, China, and North Korea that South Korea was now firmly under the US nuclear shield, the nuclear umbrella, as it came to be known. Consideration of the use of nuclear weapons was revealed to Indian Prime Minister Nehru, who told the Soviets; a ceasefire was worked out in short order. The Republic of Korea (ROK), along with quite a number of other countries, has remained under the US nuclear umbrella since.
The concept of the nuclear umbrella served to limit nuclear proliferation for roughly half a century. But that may be changing. And that’s because of deliberate choices and the consequences of those choices.
In January 1994 President Clinton, in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, promised Ukraine that, if Ukraine were to surrender its nuclear arsenal, their sovereignty would be guaranteed by the United States; in short, the US nuclear umbrella would replace Ukraine’s nuclear force.
The US destroyed the Iraqi nuclear weapons program in 1991 and in the years following under the eyes of the IAEA. In 2003, the US overthrew the Iraqi government.
In 2004 Libya surrendered its chemical weapons and nuclear weapons programs to the US. In 2011 the United States overthrew the Libyan government.
In 2006, after nearly 20 years of effort, and in light of an agreement with the US to not do so, North Korea, having built their own nuclear force, tested a small nuclear weapon. Over the next 11 years, 5 more tests followed.
In February of 2014, 20 years after President Clinton’s promise to Ukraine, Russia occupied Crimea; President Obama issued a feeble protest and some individual sanctions. The signals were fairly clear by summer of 2014:
1) Countries with nuclear weapons aren’t attacked
2) Countries that give up their nuclear weapons can be attacked
3) US promises aren’t guarantees
That third point was made clear again just a few weeks ago, as the US “retrograded” and the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan.
In 2016 the ROK began work on a ballistic missile submarine. Now, no one just starts building a missile submarine. Preliminary design work, and work to retool the shipyard, has to take place first. So, while the Korean legislature’s approval and the subsequent construction was ostensibly in response to the North Korean launches of a ballistic missiles from a submarine in 2015, clearly the ROK was already thinking about having ballistic missile submarines. It’s reasonable to assume the necessary design work and the retooling of the shipyard began in earnest by some time in 2014.
Fast forward to September 2021.
In North Korea, Kim Jong Un apparently is tired of being ignored. As you’ll recall, in February 2017, after the Trump administration came into office, North Korea fired a medium range ballistic missile into the sea. Between February and November 2017 North Korea fired a series of medium to long range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan or over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. Then, the Trump administration’s engagement with Kim convinced him to end testing and no further medium or long-range missile launches, nor nuclear weapons tests, were conducted until several missile tests were conducted in October of 2019. One more followed in March of 2020. The tests after 2017 were, with the exception of a sea-launched ballistic missile, all tests of already deployed, short-range systems and demonstrated no new capabilities.
In March of 2021, with a new administration in place, a new wrinkle was added, with a missile shot with a live, conventional warhead that apparently hit its intended target, roughly 350 miles down range. Then, last week North Korea conducted two separate sets of tests. First, they fired two long-range cruise missiles that flew for about 2 hours, and flew about 800 miles before striking their intended targets. This was followed by two ballistic missiles, from a train, that flew almost 500 miles and landed in the ocean.
These weapons represent two capabilities - a cruise missile, which can be launched from a wide range of platforms, especially ships, would be able to strike ROK or Japanese targets with reduced warning. A ballistic missile launched from a train represents a further degree of mobility, and adds to the complexity of targeting North Korean missiles and launch systems.
And the ROK conducted their own tests. First, the ROK launched a ballistic missile from an underwater barge. Then, last week, they launched a ballistic missile with a range of perhaps 350 - 500nm, from a Dosan Ahn Changho class submarine.
Submarine launched weapons are of deterrent value because they are “survivable.” In the event of war, they won’t be rapidly destroyed; they’ll be available to return fire. In the jargon of strategic weapons, they are a “second strike” platform.
Assuming they’re armed with nuclear weapons.
The ROK is building 9 Dosan Ahn Changho submarines, with 6 missiles each, at $900 million each. Overall, the ROK posture is to deter. But would a conventional ballistic missiles function as a deterrent? The answer is, simply, “no.”
Could it be that the ROK saw the handwriting on the wall in 2014, when the Obama administration not only let Russia walk into Crimea, but also seemed to move closer to Iran - and away from long time allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, et al? Could the ROK have determined their long-term survival can no longer hinge on the US nuclear umbrella, that US Presidents were “closing” the umbrella? That they, the ROK, needed their own nuclear deterrent? And who would follow in this path once it became clear what the ROK was doing? Japan? Taiwan? The UAE?
All have the money and the technology; after all, nuclear weapons are more than half-century old technology.
There is one other point: this is not fate or happenstance; this is the direct consequence of three decades of poor US decisions and failed leadership. Oddly, given the Chairman’s fears of Mr. Trump, the only President of the last five who seemed to understand that you needed to stand up to bullies, is the one vilified. Yet, the other four may well go down in history for de facto encouraging nuclear proliferation.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...