Defense Secretary James Mattis met with his South Korean counterpart this month in Seoul, accusing the Kim regime of “outlaw” behavior and vowing to defeat any attack.
“North Korea has accelerated the threat that it poses to its neighbors and the world through its illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear weapon program,” said Mattis.
“I cannot imagine a condition under which the United States would accept North Korea as a nuclear power,” he added, reiterating that diplomacy is the preferred way to deal with North Korea. “With that said, make no mistake – any attack on the United States or our allies will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons by the North will be met with a massive military response that is effective and overwhelming.”
Mattis has made it a point to emphasize and strengthen our alliances, and this is his second visit to Seoul since taking office in January. The alliance between the US and South Korea has taken on “a new urgency” in the face of Kim’s threats, says Mattis.
South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo told reporters that he and Mattis had agreed to strengthen Seoul’s defense capabilities by lifting warhead payload limits and supporting the country’s procurement of the “most advanced military assets.”
In the meantime, South Korean politicians are urging the US to bring back tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from South Korea in the 1990s.
Both Mattis and Song are strongly against the idea. “When considering national interest, it’s much better not to deploy them,” insisted Song. South Korean President Moon Jae-in agrees, insisting that building nukes or reintroducing Americans weapons would make it even harder to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear program.
According to polls, 60% of South Koreans want to establish their own nuclear arsenal and up to 70% want to bring back American tactical nukes.
“If the UN Security Council can’t rein in North Korea with its sanctions, we will have no option but to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty,” warned Won Yoo-chul, leader of the opposition Liberty Korea party.
Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Myanmar, and Vietnam are also considering whether it makes sense to stay nuclear-free if others arm themselves – contributing to fears that North Korea could ignite a chain reaction in which one nation after another feels threatened and builds a nuclear bomb.
In reality, the only two things stopping Japan and South Korea from building nuclear weapons are political sentiment and the threat of sanctions. There is little public desire in Japan to build nuclear weapons, but that opinion could shift if South Korea decides to do it.
President Trump entered the White House promising to solve the North Korea problem. The Administration has heaped pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang, but Kim hasn’t budged from his goal of building a nuke capable of reaching the US mainland.
If Trump sticks to his guns, so to speak, something will have to give: Washington will either have to find a way to temper Kim’s ambitions or accept the regime as a nuclear power.
The only other alternative I see is military action, which poses serious risks for South Korea, Japan, and the US.
If North Korea “remains on its current path of ballistic missiles and atomic bombs, it will be counterproductive, in effect reducing its security,” said Mattis.
More than anything else, this series of events shows that both sides are still taking the situation seriously.
Editor’s note: Recall that this situation was left to come to a head by many presidents before Trump. North Korea should never have been allowed to get nuclear weapons.