America's North Korean Military Options
It's often said in response to North Korea’s provocations, including its most recent testing of an atomic bomb, that the U.S. has no realistic military options. It is always assumed that the only military option is to bomb the North’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere.
Such action is rightly dismissed as unthinkable because of the threat of North Korean retaliation against Seoul, which, being in artillery range, not to mention missile range, is very exposed. Yet there are other military options that would not put Seoul in danger. fully understand, we must roll back the clock.
The time is 1970. This writer is a young Air Force lieutenant assigned to the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing at Yokota Air Base Japan, west of Tokyo. The 347th is equipped with F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers. One of our squadrons is always deployed to Osan Air Base south of Seoul, South Korea, where it stands on nuclear alert.
By nuclear alert I mean that the aircraft are sitting on the tarmac with their engines idling, a pilot in the cockpit and a thermonuclear weapon in the bomb bay ready to take off at a moment’s notice and drop that bomb on . . . .well, better left unsaid even at this date. Suffice it to say that the Cold War was at its height.
But the 347th wasn’t alone. Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, then under U.S. administration, was bristling with atomic weapons. U.S. Navy aircraft carriers assigned to the 7th Fleet routinely carried nuclear weapons into Japan home ports; Tokyo turning a blind eye despite its official policy not to allow nuclear weapons into the country.
Soon after I left the air force, the 347th was disbanded and not replaced. Yokota is still a big American base (made even bigger by closure of other bases in the Tokyo area), but is used now mostly as a stopover and transit point for Asia, a kind of military version of the civilian Narita International Airport.
Okinawa was returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1972 and nuclear weapons were withdrawn in compliance with Japanese policy not to allow such weapons on its soil. President George H.W. Bush removed nuclear weapons from South Korea, and the carriers no longer routinely carry nuclear bombs.
This is not to say there are no assets in the region. The U.S. Air Force bases fighter-bomber at Misawa in northern Japan and in Korea. The 7th Fleet still operates from ports in Japan. But there are (to my knowledge anyway) no nuclear weapons deployed anywhere in the region.
Japan and South Korea still come under the protection of the “nuclear umbrella," which is America’s promise to defend the two countries, with its own nuclear arsenal if necessary. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Taro Aso reportedly reaffirmed the viability of the umbrella over the phone.
That’s all well and good, but the nuclear umbrella is becoming something of an abstraction to most Japanese and South Koreans. It is not just the question of whether or not America really would risk its own cities by coming to Japan’s aid. That’s an old story. The problem is that there is no longer any tangible evidence of the nuclear umbrella in northeast Asia, while there is plenty of tangible evidence of another nuclear equipped nation in the neighborhood bragging about its growing capabilities.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, Michael Schiffer, happened to be in Tokyo during the test to discuss what kind of advance fighter planes to sell to Japan. He told the Nikkei newspaper: “We are ready talk with the Japanese government about all matters.” This includes ways to strengthen the nuclear deterrence, he said. He did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, continued provocations from North Korea give conservatives in Japan ammunition to play up the North Korean threat while playing down U.S. capabilities, and to argue that this requires a much more robust Japanese effort in its own security, including possibly acquiring nuclear weapons for itself.
Nobody doubts that Japan has sufficient nuclear materials on hand to build hundreds, maybe thousands of atomic bombs if it wanted to. In May, less than one week before the bomb test, two ships docked in Japan and unloaded 1.7 tons of plutonium from Europe. It was mixed with uranium to fuel civilian nuclear power plants.
So far during this episode, no prominent Japanese official has called on Japan to acquire nuclear weapons, but there is plenty of discussion about Japan acquiring a “first strike” capability against North Korean missile launching sites with conventional weapons. It would require combining intelligence-gathering orbiting satellite with cruise missiles. It is not just talk; it's likely to become official policy.
So one military option would be for the U.S. to reintroduce nuclear weapons at some of its bases in South Korea, or possibly place them back on navy fleet aircraft carriers, including those based at Japanese ports. This would be unpalatable to Obama, who would rather see reduction of nuclear armaments rather than reintroducing them.
Interestingly, the day after the North Korean test, the Council on Foreign Relations released a 125-page report entitled: “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy” responding to Obama’s recent call for a nuclear-free world by urging the Obama administration to “reaffirm U.S. commitment to security assurances, including extended nuclear deterrence to allies”
Such a response would require no massive troop deployments, would not deplete already stained manpower in Iraq or Afghanistan, or cost a fortune. It simply means moving some weapons from one place of storage in the U.S.to a new place. That’s assuming we still have them. We do, don’t we?