Fear of aggression from either side of the 38th parallel has been reason enough for either Seoul or Pyongyang to seek nuclear weapons or have another major power provide a nuclear umbrella under which they can stand, thus making nuclear weapons a major source of tension between the two Koreas during the Cold War. Although North Korea never had nuclear warheads on its soil prior to developing its own, for 33 years the United States had a variety of nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea, ranging from surface-to-air missiles to 8-inch Howitzer artillery shells. At one point, there were nearly 950 warheads stationed by the US on the southern half of the peninsula for the purpose of deterrence against regional adversaries, most notably North Korea. Although the US carried through with its pledge to unilaterally withdraw all nuclear warheads from South Korea in 1991, as confirmed by this de-classified USCINCPAC document, the persistence of extended nuclear deterrence (END) continues to be a source of friction in the region. In this essay, Scott Bruce discusses the concept of END and the implications its has for modern relations between North Korea and major regional powers. – S.C. Denney, Assistant Editor
Nuclear Vacuum Zone: Extended Nuclear Deterrence, China, and North Korea
by Scott Bruce
North Korea describes its nuclear weapon program as a deterrent against nuclear attack from the United States. One aspect of this nuclear threat is the US commitment of extended nuclear deterrence (END), often referred to as the US nuclear umbrella, to the ROK and Japan. A DPRK Foreign Ministry statement was clear that North Korean denuclearization was only possible when “the U.S. nuclear threat is removed and South Korea is cleared of its nuclear umbrella.” The requirement that the US end the policy of END has been repeated many times in subsequent KCNA statements.
In response to the nuclear threats from the DPRK, and despite the policy of global nuclear abolition, the US END commitment to South Korea and Japan has been strengthened over the last four years. The 2010 NPT review noted the intent to rely “increasingly on non-nuclear elements to strengthen regional security architectures,” but acknowledged some role for nuclear weapons in US defense policy and security alliances. The US commitment of extended nuclear deterrence to the ROK has also been reaffirmed repeatedly in bilateral meetings.
During the Cold War, the nuclear strategies of both the US and USSR imagined nuclear confrontation on a global scale. This would mean that any nuclear attack on North Korea would be likely to involve an attack on the USSR and/or China, who would both respond in kind. In this way, the threat of global nuclear war and the strategy of mutually assured destruction meant that the DPRK could be said to be under the Chinese or Soviet nuclear umbrella. In the post-Cold War era, the US has continued to rely on nuclear deterrence as a fundamental aspect of its security alliance with the ROK and Japan. This begs the question, does the China-DPRK relationship extend China’s nuclear umbrella over North Korea?
The 1967 “Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance” between the DPRK and PRC commits both countries to:
adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either of the Contracting Parties by any state. In the event of one of the Contracting Parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states jointly and thus being involved in a state of war, the other Contracting Party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.
The Korean Peninsula remains “in a state of war” and “all means at its disposal” would seem to include nuclear weapons, so, at first glance, it might seem like North Korea is firmly under the Chinese nuclear umbrella. However, China maintains that it does not have a policy of extended nuclear deterrence. Senior Colonel Yao Yunzhu of the PLA writes:
China preserves nuclear capabilities only to deter nuclear-weapon states from launching nuclear attacks against its homeland. China neither provides a “nuclear umbrella” to, nor accepts one from, any other country. Its opposition to the policy of extended nuclear deterrence—the practice of nuclear-weapon states’ providing nuclear umbrellas to their non-nuclear-weapon allies—attests to the self-defensive nature of that policy.
The DPRK Foreign Ministry concurs, noting “the DPRK has never been provided with any nuclear umbrella by outsiders to cope with the U.S. nuclear threat.” In fact, by North Korea’s estimation, its nuclear weapons program was necessary to correct the nuclear instability in North-East Asia where “only the DPRK was left without any nuke [sic.] whereas other regions had lots of nuclear weapons and were under nuclear umbrellas.” North Korea’s nuclear program ended what the DPRK has colorfully termed a “nuclear vacuum zone” in North-East Asia.
The closest thing that North Korea has to a definitive statement of its nuclear posture is the April 21, 2010 Foreign Ministry statement (collected, along with other key NK statements on its nuclear program, here). The important statement on nuclear use from North Korea is:
The mission of the nuclear forces of the DPRK is to deter and repel aggression and attack against the country and the nation until the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the world is realized. The DPRK is invariably maintaining the policy not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or threaten them with nuclear weapons as long as they do not join the act of invading or attacking us in conspiracy with nuclear weapons states.
North Korea is not protected by China’s nuclear umbrella. The DPRK has articulated its nuclear policy to say that the lack of a nuclear umbrella has necessitated its nuclear deterrent and it cannot imagine surrendering its nuclear weapons unless the US withdraws extended nuclear deterrence from the ROK and Japan, altering the nature of those alliances.
Alternatively, if we believe North Korea’s rhetorical justification for its nuclear program, an END commitment from China to the DPRK would stabilize the nuclear imbalance in the region without a nuclear North Korea. Given China’s vehement opposition to END, this does not seem particularly likely, but it would be in line with the DPRK-PRC mutual defense treaty and address the security concerns in North Korea regarding the superiority of US and ROK military forces.
- “2010 Nuclear Posture Review,” US Department of Defense, April 2010.
- “DPRK Foreign Ministry’s Spokesman Dismisses U.S. Wrong Assertion”, KCNA, January 13, 2009.
- “Foreign Ministry Issues Memorandum on N-Issue,” KCNA, April 21, 2010.
- Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce, “North Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Threat of Nuclear War in Korea,” Nautilus Institute Special Report, April 21, 2011.
- Peter Hayes and Richard Tanter, “Beyond the Nuclear Umbrella: Re-Thinking the Theory and Practice of Nuclear Extended Deterrence in East Asia and the Pacific,” Nautilus Institute Special Report, May 3, 2011.
- “KCNA Commentary Slashes at US Invariable Ambition for Preemptive Nuclear Attack,“ KCNA, April 13, 2011.
- “Obama Pledges Nuke Deterrence¬ Ship Rescue Aid,” The Korea Herald, April 1, 2010.
- “Open Questionnaire of the Policy Department of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK,” KCNA, February 2, 2012.
- “S.Korea Welcomes US Nuclear Policy,” Agence France Presse, April 17, 2012.
- “Songun Politics, Guarantee for Prosperity of DPRK,” KCNA, February 16, 2012.