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Biden & Yoon Agree No Nuclear Weapons for South Korea

In return for a greater decision-making role in U.S. contingency planning in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack, South Korea has agreed not to pursue its own nuclear weapons program.

The United States and South Korea are set to announce the agreement Wednesday, as President Joe Biden hosts his South Korean counterpart President Yoon Suk Yeol at the White House for a state visit to celebrate the two countries’ 70th year of bilateral relations and discuss the two allies’ future relationship.

The “Washington Declaration,” is the result of a series of steps negotiated over many months and designed to reaffirm U.S. deterrence commitments to the Republic of Korea, a senior administration official said in a Tuesday briefing to reporters.

Under the deal, the official said Seoul will “maintain its non-nuclear status and continue to abide by all the conditions of its signatory status to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.” The NPT, which South Korea ratified in 1975, prohibits states-parties from developing nuclear weapons.

The two countries will also establish the U.S. – ROK Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), a “regular bilateral consultation mechanism that will focus on nuclear and strategic planning issues and will give our ROK allies additional insight in how we think about planning for major contingencies,” the official added. Beyond greater information sharing, Seoul will have a greater voice in the deliberations of U.S. weapons deployment, he said.

The NCG mechanism is similar to how the U.S. coordinated its nuclear deterrence decisions with some NATO allies during the Cold War.

Growing doubt

The U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, commits Washington to help South Korea defend itself, particularly from North Korea. But as Pyongyang moves rapidly with its nuclear weapons program, including developing missiles that can target American cities, there has been growing doubt among South Koreans on whether Washington would risk its own safety to protect Seoul and whether Seoul should continue to rely on U.S. “extended deterrence,” a term also known as the American nuclear umbrella.

Giving South Korea a greater say in U.S. strategic deliberations is a necessary step to address the country’s increasing sense of vulnerability in the face of a nuclear threat from Pyongyang, said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Through the Washington Declaration, the Biden administration is trying to demonstrate that its pledge to defend South Korea is “credible and rock-solid,” Snyder told VOA.

In January, Yoon told his defense and foreign ministry officials that if the threat posed by North Korea “gets worse,” his country may “introduce tactical nuclear weapons or build them on our own.”

Seoul walked back Yoon’s comments following an international backlash. However, the narrative of South Korea having its own nuclear deterrence capability has become more mainstream in the country’s national security discourse.

A 2022 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations showed that 71% of South Koreans say their country should build its own nuclear weapons.

More muscular deterrence

The U.S. official said the deal would mean enhanced integration of South Korean conventional weapons into U.S. strategic planning, and a more muscular approach to deterrence through increased war games and deployments of military assets including a U.S. nuclear ballistic submarine visit to South Korea, which has not happened since the early 1980s.

Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a prominent conservative think tank in Seoul, told VOA that the creation of the NCG mechanism and additional deployment of assets will be considered a win for the Yoon government.

While the White House is currently opposed to positioning nuclear assets, including tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, regular visits by a U.S. nuclear submarine amount to “hinting at a dedicated nuclear submarine option, which could be fully fleshed out in the next round of discussions between the two allies,” Go added.

The creation of the NCG does not mean the group will be deciding when Washington will launch nuclear strikes, another senior administration official said. She emphasized that the decision for nuclear use is “the sole authority” of the U.S. president.

China reaction

China, which has long seen North Korea as a buffer against U.S. influence in the region, is expected to react strongly to additional deployment of U.S. assets, particularly in light of simmering tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan and various other thorny issues.

“We are briefing the Chinese in advance and laying out very clearly our rationale for why we are taking these steps,” the U.S. official said, adding that Washington has been “disappointed” Beijing has not been able to influence its ally Pyongyang to halt its “many provocations.”

The official said the administration has urged Kim Jong Un’s government to return to dialogue. “They have chosen not to and instead have taken a series of increasingly provocative and destabilizing steps,” he said.

North Korea has conducted at least 13 missile launches this year alone, including three intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Pyongyang insists they are a response to expanded U.S.-South Korea military drills that it sees as rehearsals for an invasion.