SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea is preparing to deploy tactical nuclear weapons along its tense border with rival South Korea, which is only a short drive away of the 26 million people living around Seoul, its capital?
That’s the opinion of many experts who are paying close attention to a high-profile North Korean military meeting this week. The possible deployment, just two months after a veiled threat by leader Kim Jong Un to preemptively use nuclear weapons, would be a major development in the decades-long stalemate on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea already has thousands of conventional weapons aimed at South Korea and the roughly 30,000 US forces stationed there, but moving its short-range nuclear missiles to the border would be the clearest sign yet that Kim seeks to use his nuclear weapons both to threaten South Korea and to extract concessions from outside nuclear negotiators.
Alongside North Korea’s apparent preparations for its first nuclear test in five years, observers are deeply skeptical about the ability of diplomacy to convince the country to give up its nuclear weapons. Critics are calling on Seoul and Washington to formulate a new approach to deal with North Korea’s rapidly improving nuclear program.
Here’s a look at Kim’s latest nuclear moves.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS AT THE BORDER?
During a military meeting that ended Thursday, Kim and other senior officials confirmed additional “operation obligations” and “modified operation plans” for military units near the border with China. South Korea.
State media reports do not directly mention nuclear weapons. But outside experts believe North Korea’s vague language signals its intention to forward-deploy tactical nuclear weapons systems. They base their assessment in part on North Korea’s recent public comments about those plans, and a series of short-range nuclear-capable missile tests designed to attack strategic facilities in South Korea, including American military bases there.
An important clue came in April, when North Korea tested a newly developed guided weapon it said would improve the effective operation of “tactical nuclear weapons” and increase the firepower of frontline artillery units. Later that month, Kim said he could use his nuclear program preemptively if provoked.
North Korea now has a “much better chance of using its tactical nuclear weapons on a battlefield” if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, said Kim Yeol Soo, an expert at Korea’s Institute of Military Affairs. from South.
The weapons likely to be deployed on the border are among the most mobile, solid-fueled, short-range missiles North Korea has tested since collapsing nuclear diplomacy with the United States in 2019. Korea du Nord has called these missiles – which foreign experts say are potentially capable of evading South Korean and US missile defenses – “tactical” weapons, implying its intention to arm them with low-yield nuclear weapons .
North Korea has likely already acquired the technology to arm its missiles with nuclear warheads, so its deployment of tactical nuclear weapons could take place at any time, said Kim Taewoo, former director of the Korea Institute for national unification in Seoul.
Some experts, however, have said North Korea may not deploy nuclear missiles due to possible maintenance issues.
WILL SOUTH KOREA REACT BY DEPLOYING NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
North Korea’s apparent push to deploy tactical nuclear weapons may be part of Kim’s recent vow to counter US “might for might” amid stalled nuclear diplomacy. It also comes as Washington and Seoul work to bolster their combined defense capabilities to deal with North Korean nuclear threats.
South Korea’s new conservative government, which took office last month, said it would expand its conventional weapons capabilities and strengthen its defenses in conjunction with the United States.
While the Koreas have avoided major conflict since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, there have been skirmishes and deadly attacks in recent years that have claimed dozens of lives.
North Korea has a history of escalating threats and provocations when a new government is inaugurated in South Korea or the United States to create a potentially favorable environment for future negotiations. The country then often stifled its rhetoric and launched charm offensives.
It may happen this time.
But frontline nuclear weapons would complicate South Korea’s response to any future North Korean provocations.
South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk Yeol, at a summit with US President Joe Biden last month, secured a US commitment on the regional deployment of US strategic assets such as long-range bombers and carriers. planes in response to provocations by North Korea.
Allies can also conduct their biggest combined military training in years in August.
But Yoon said he would not pursue nuclear development or ask the United States to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea as a deterrent against possible aggression from North Korea.
South Korea’s military said it was closely monitoring North Korean activities regarding the possibility of deploying tactical nuclear weapons, but did not provide details.
Some experts say North Korea’s expansion of tactical nuclear weapons and the pursuit of long-range missiles capable of reaching the American mainland have reduced the credibility of the American “nuclear umbrella”, although the Biden administration has reaffirmed repeatedly the American commitment to defend South Korea with its full range of military capabilities.
There are also calls for the reintroduction of US nuclear weapons into South Korea.
“We should shift to a strategy of ending nuclear threats from North Korea through nuclear balance,” said Kim Taewoo, the former director of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons means that the nuclear threat from North Korea would be right in front of us.”
Tactical nuclear weapons were part of a five-year weapons development plan announced by Kim Jong Un last year. He has accelerated ballistic missile testing at an unprecedented rate this year to bolster his country’s ability to attack both the continental United States and South Korea.
For weeks, US and South Korean officials have noted signs of an impending nuclear test by North Korea, which would be its first since 2017 and the seventh overall. Such a test could be part of an attempt to build a warhead that could fit on tactical missiles or multi-warhead missiles.
But North Korea has yet to conduct such a test, possibly due to its ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and opposition from China, its last major ally and biggest aid provider.
North Korea has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offers of open talks, calling on Washington to first abandon its “hostile policies”, a term it uses in reference to US-led economic sanctions. United States and joint US-South Korean military exercises.
Experts say it’s only a matter of time before North Korea conducts a nuclear test, which is seen as a key step in expanding its nuclear arsenal under Kim’s five-year plan . Such a test would likely further complicate efforts to resume nuclear diplomacy.
Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung, Associated Press