The 2010 NPR pointed out nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation as today’s most immediate and extreme threats, and stressed the need to maintain stable strategic relationships with existing nuclear states such as China and Russia. The NPR emphasizes the concept of negative security assurance: the U.S. declared that it will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations. This implies that any state that uses chemical and biological weapons (CBW) rather than nuclear weapons against the U.S. or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response rather than being punished with nuclear weapons. However, the U.S. has also declared that it reserves the right to employ nuclear weapons to deter a conventional or CBW attack against the U.S. or its allies and partners by states that possess nuclear weapons or those not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.
The NPR has two implications on the Korean peninsula. First, outlier countries such as North Korea and Iran that have violated their NPT obligations and continued to pursue nuclear weapons have been excluded from the negative security assurance. Therefore, there is high possibility that North Korea might refer to such provisions found in the NPR to justify its position of possessing nuclear weapons, while continuing to argue that the U.S. must abandon its hostile policy toward Pyongyang. In response to the NPR, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced its plan to further increase and modernize its nuclear deterrent as long as the U.S. continues to pose a security threat to the North. Thus, the 2010 NPR could have the effect of further holding back North Korea from returning to the six-party process and also raises the possibility of reopening discussions, before North Korea’s return to Six-Party Talks, on U.S.-DPRK normalization or on a peace regime.
The NPR states that U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the U.S. or its allies, which implies the possibility of a U.S. preemptive strike against North Korea. This clearly illustrates the Obama government’s rejection of the No First Use policy, which is an irritant to the North. In order to persuade Pyongyang to return to the six-party process, the U.S. should pose its policies more flexibly, even though its strategies should consistently emphasize dialogue and sanctions. Also, the NPR states that the United States will use nuclear weapons only to protect the vital interests of the U.S. or its allies, but it is not clear what those vital interests are. It is essential for Washington to clearly specify those interests to maintain a favorable position in negotiating with North Korea.
Second, the 2010 NPR indicates that although a U.S. “nuclear umbrella” is provided by a combination of the strategic forces of the U.S. Triad, non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed forward in key regions, and U.S.-based nuclear weapons, many of these weapons were removed at the end of the Cold War. Instead, the U.S. has developed missile defense (MD), counter-weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, conventional power-projection capabilities, and integrated command and control as its main tools for enhancing regional security. While continuing to maintain nuclear deterrence, the United States seeks to strengthen its regional deterrence capability through MD or conventional long-range missiles. Such a possibility raises the concern that U.S. deterrence capability achieved with nuclear weapons could be weakened, including U.S. extended deterrence capabilities provided to South Korea.
South Korean concerns over U.S. extended deterrence pertain to the planned transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) scheduled for 2012. The possible weakening of U.S. nuclear extended deterrence as suggested in the NPR could mean a decline in U.S. defense support to South Korea, and in turn a weaker defense capability of the ROK vis-à-vis North Korea. Furthermore, the uncertain number of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula associated with strategic flexibility of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) would signal a weakening of defense capability to the Korean people.
Concerning MD, South Korea is currently developing Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) and is not participating in the U.S.-centered MD system. South Korea considers that joining the U.S. MD system might provoke North Korea and worsen South Korea’s relationship with China. Japan, on the other hand, is partially included in the U.S. MD system. Such a situation leaves open the logical possibility that U.S. troops stationed in Japan might be more effective in deterring North Korea than the U.S.-ROK alliance.