The United States had plans to use nuclear weapons in the event of a crisis on the Korean peninsula three years ago, according to former US Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta.
“If North Korea moved across the border, our war plans called for the senior American general on the peninsula to take command of all U.S. and South Korean forces and defend South Korea – including by the use of nuclear weapons, if necessary,” Panetta wrote in his recently-published memoir, “Our forces maintained a readiness posture that allowed them to ‘fight tonight.’ I left our meeting with the powerful sense that war in that region was neither hypothetical nor remote, but ever present and imminent.”
According to Panetta, he informed former South Korean Defense Minister and current Blue House National Security Chief Kim Kwan-jin about the possibility of using nuclear weapons at a US-South Korea security consultative meeting back in 2011. This possibility, however, has never been disclosed to the South Korean public.
US Nuke Threat – the Latest in a Long History
US nuclear threats on the Korean peninsula have a long history, beginning with General Douglas MacArthur’s request to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 1950, immediately after the outbreak of the Korean War, to “consider whether or not A-bombs should be made available in direct support [of] ground combat.”
Since the war, the world’s longest running ceasefire, largely maintained through continued US nuclear threats, has kept the Korean peninsula divided for more than half a century.
From 1958 to 1991, the United States stockpiled nuclear weapons – as much as 950 warheads – in South Korea in direct violation of Article 13(d) of the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which forbid the introduction of new weapons in post-war Korea.
And throughout the 1980s, the United States regularly conducted ‘Team Spirit’ military exercises simulating preemptive nuclear strikes against North Korea.
When the United States and the former Soviet Union agreed to reduce their tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles at the end of the Cold War, the United States reportedly withdrew its nuclear weapons from South Korea. But to this day, it still maintains its nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula by including South Korea in its nuclear umbrella.
And in its massive joint war games with South Korea, which take place multiple times each year, the United States never fails to remind North Korea of its nuclear prowess.
Obama’s ‘Playbook’ and Continued US Nuclear Threat
Panetta’s recent revelation begs the question – does the United States still have plans to use nuclear weapons in Korea?
US policy of ‘strategic patience’ vis a vis North Korea – far from a passive waiting game as its name suggests – includes intensifying military pressure through constant and massive war games simulating the deployment of troops in Pyongyang and the seizure of North Korea’s nuclear warheads in the event of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime.
In April 2013, the United States introduced its ‘playbook,’ a detailed plan for a show of force against North Korea during its war games with South Korea. It included the use of B-52 strategic bombers, B-2 stealth bombers, and F-22 stealth fighter planes in broad daylight in an exercise aimed at maximizing military and psychological pressure on North Korea.
And just last month, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced that US and South Korean forces will create a combined special operation unit trained to respond to regime change in the North.
It’s safe to conclude that as long as the United States refuses to abandon regime collapse scenarios in North Korea, it will not rule out the use of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.
Ever-Present and Imminent War
War on the Korean peninsula, as Panetta writes, is “neither hypothetical nor remote, but ever present and imminent.”
But the South Korean government is revealingly silent at the disclosure of US nuclear war plans in Korea. It is, after all, the only government in the world that begs another country to maintain wartime operational control of its armed forces.
The use of nuclear weapons, which may be a matter of strategic calculation for the United States, is unthinkable for the 75 million living on the Korean peninsula.
When will President Obama, the Nobel Peace laureate, with only two more years in his post, abandon war plans and deliver on his historic pledge of a ‘world without nuclear weapons’?