With Defense Secretary James Mattis reiterated today that the US goal is “diplomacy” with North Korea, the effort appears to be heading as far away from diplomacy as humanly possible. Indeed, Mattis confirmed recent discussions with his South Korean counterpart centered on the possibility of the US using tactical nukes against North Korea.
Mattis said it was important for the sake of open dialogue with allies to discuss issues like unleashing tactical nuclear weapons on their neighbor to the north. He did not elaborate on the US position, though South Korea’s President Moon has ruled out hosting US nuclear arms.
That issue appears to be divisive in South Korea, with Defense Minister Song Young-moo advocating such a move, and suggestions that he was the one that brought the issue up to Mattis in the first place. The US held nuclear arms in South Korea through 1991, withdrawing them at the end of the Cold War.
Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten rejected the idea of even calling the weapons “tactical,” though that designation refers to them being smaller than “strategic” US nukes. He insisted that there wasn’t a chance the US would bring a nuclear weapon into battle for tactical effect, but only as a strategic retaliation.
Which isn’t the official US position at all. Indeed, US officials have regularly spurned “no first strike” proposals, and have held out the possibility of preemptively nuking other nations. Advocates have argued ruling out such attacks would be seen as a sign of weakness, and hurt US flexibility in starting nuclear wars.