The United States and South Korea have reached a historic agreement for the first time since the early 1980s to counter the North Korean nuclear threat in the face of growing concern over Pyongyang’s missile and weapon arsenal.
Presidents Joe Biden and Yoon Suk-yeol of the United States and South Korea have pledged to increase deterrence against North Korea, including the deployment of nuclear-armed US submarines and other military assets to South Korea. Biden and Yoon discussed the new accord between the two countries, dubbed the “Washington Declaration,” at a joint news conference following their meeting to commemorate the 70-year alliance between the two nations.
US President Joe Biden praised what he referred to as the “ironclad” alliance between the two nations. “The Washington Declaration will strengthen the allies’ co-operation in deterring a North Korean attack,” Biden said.
South Korean President, Yoon said, “Our two countries have agreed to immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of North Korea’s nuclear attack and promised to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly and decisively using the full force of the alliance, including the United States’ nuclear weapons.” He stated that the Washington Declaration represented a “unprecedented” commitment by the United States to use nuclear weapons to bolster defense, deter assaults, and protect allies.
What had happened?
Concern has increased on both parties regarding the North Korean nuclear threat. Pyongyang is developing tactical nuclear weapons that can target South Korea and refining long-range nuclear weapons that can reach the United States’ mainland. The United States is already obligated by treaty to defend South Korea and has previously pledged to employ nuclear weapons if required. However, some South Koreans began to question this commitment and advocated for the country to pursue its own nuclear program.
Politicians in Seoul have long urged the U.S. to involve them more in the planning of when and how to employ nuclear weapons against North Korea. As North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has increased in size and sophistication, South Koreans have been increasingly concerned of being kept in a state of uncertainty about what would cause President Biden to click the nuclear button on their behalf. There have been demands for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons out of concern that Washington may abandon Seoul.
The “Washington Declaration”: what’s in it?
Biden and Yoon unveiled the “Washington Declaration,” a set of new measures to enhance US-South Korean cooperation on military training, information exchange, and strategic asset movements in response to the recent proliferation of North Korean missile launches.
It aims to convey an explicit signal: “What the United States and the ROK plan to do at every level is strengthen our practices, our deployments, our capabilities, to ensure the deterrent message is absolutely unquestioned and to also make clear that if we are tested in any way that we will be prepared to respond collectively and in an overwhelming way,” a senior administration official said.
The United States has agreed to periodically deploy nuclear-powered submarines to South Korea and to include Seoul in its nuclear planning operations. South Korea has pledged not to develop its own nuclear weapons in exchange.
Biden, however, made it plain that no American nuclear weapons would be stationed on South Korean soil. “I have absolute authority as commander in chief and the sole authority to use a nuclear weapon, but … what the declaration means is that we’re going to make every effort to consult with our allies when it’s appropriate, if any action is so called for,” he said.
Under the terms of the latest accord, the United States will increase the visibility of its defense commitments by deploying a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in forty years, as well as other strategic assets, including nuclear-capable bombers. In addition, the two parties will establish a Nuclear Consultative Group to discuss nuclear planning issues.
This new Nuclear Consultative Group provides the increased participation that the South Korean government has requested. The larger issue, however, is whether it can reduce public anxiety as it does not commit the United States to defend South Korea with nuclear weapons in the event of an attack by North Korea.
US warns North Korea
Biden stated, “A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.”
In return, the US has asked South Korea to keep being a non-nuclear state and a strong supporter of not spreading nuclear weapons. The United States views dissuading South Korea from going nuclear as crucial, for concern that if it fails, other nations may follow suit.
The United States intends to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, declared the country’s nuclear status “irreversible” last year.
A “Win” for South Korea?
The agreed-upon steps fall short of what some South Koreans have demanded and are “unlikely to either persuade North Korea off its current course of weapon of mass destruction WMD development and testing or to quiet the debate inside South Korea about its own nuclear future,” according to Jenny Town of the Washington-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North.
Sue Mi Terry of the think tank Wilson Center viewed the decision as primarily rhetorical and “a fig leaf” to discourage South Korea from going nuclear. “That’s what this is about. But it remains to be seen if Korean public opinion will be satisfied,”
Terry stated that any resumption of nuclear bomb tests by North Korea for the first time since 2017 would increase alarm in South Korea and demands for its own nuclear arsenal – or for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the nation. Nonetheless, increasing Seoul’s participation in nuclear discussions should enable Yoon to argue to his domestic audience that Washington takes Seoul’s concerns seriously.
Duyeon Kim, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, described the Washington Declaration as “a major victory for the alliance and South Korea in particular.” She stated that one of the most significant developments was that the two parties were now simulating scenarios that included a U.S. nuclear response, whereas in the past this information was considered too sensitive to be disclosed.
However, Dr. Cheong Seong-chang, a leading proponent of South Korea going nuclear, said that despite the declaration’s many positive aspects, it was “extremely regrettable that South Korea had openly given up its right to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT],” adding that this had “further strengthened our nuclear shackles.”
Yet, the treaty seems to be what South Korea has been wanting for a long time as Yoon’s visit follows the largest U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises in years, which were primarily designed to mitigate the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.