Experts: Declaration May Not Ease SKorea’s Concern Over US Nuclear Commitment
An unprecedented bilateral nuclear declaration that Washington and Seoul just announced may not be enough to assuage South Koreans’ worries about a U.S. pledge to protect them from North Korea’s nuclear attacks as it was designed to do, according to experts.
U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol presented the Washington Declaration on Wednesday at a post-summit news conference.
With it, the U.S. agreed to “make every effort to consult with the ROK on any possible nuclear weapons employment on the Korean Peninsula” and reassured “the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence” using “the full range of U.S. capabilities, including nuclear.” The ROK stands for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
Extended deterrence is described by the U.S. military as the American commitment “to deter and, if necessary, to respond” to attacks on its allies and partners “across the spectrum of potential nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios.” This commitment is often described as providing a “nuclear umbrella” to those allies and partners.
Washington also agreed in the declaration to regularly deploy strategic assets such as nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to South Korea.
Biden and Yoon also agreed to establish the Nuclear Consultation Group (NCG), a joint body that will meet regularly to discuss nuclear and strategic planning for contingencies in and around the divided Korean Peninsula.
The U.S. has a similar nuclear planning group within the multilateral body of NATO. But South Korea’s participation in U.S. nuclear planning through the newly announced NCG would be the first agreement Washington has made with a single non-nuclear state to let it in on its nuclear decision-making process.
At the press conference, Yoon said the NCG would raise extended deterrence to a new level.
He said, “Under the nuclear umbrella, our extended deterrence was a lot lower.” He continued, “Now it’s an unprecedented expansion and strengthening of the extended deterrence strategy under the Washington Declaration, which will create the NCG. The implementation and the response at this level has never thus far been this strong.”
The Washington Declaration and the NCG are “useful and productive steps,” according to Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Strategy and Force Development and the cofounder of The Marathon Initiative, a Washington-based institution focused on providing foreign and defense policy recommendations.
However, he continued, these developments “do not appear sufficient to address the fundamental quandary facing the alliance — the growth of North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile program.” He added, “Washington and Seoul should be prepared to work together to come up with more dramatic measures to meet this very real and indeed growing challenge.”
The measures, while designed to deter North Korean attacks, do not address how the alliance aims to reduce North Korea’s provocations that have been increasing anxiety among South Koreans.
North Korea conducted a record number of ballistic missile tests last year and continued its launches this year, including three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In February it conducted what it said was a drill of a super-large multiple rocket launcher able to attack South Korea with tactical nuclear weapons.
In January, Yoon floated the idea of Seoul having nuclear weapons only to dismiss his remarks later, even though polls suggested that more than 70% of South Koreans would support their nation developing its own nuclear weapons or the return of nuclear weapons to the county. The U.S. withdrew nuclear weapons in 1991.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said, “In the minds of Washington and Seoul, [the declaration] will mean they are strengthening deterrence and therefore security.”
He continued, “But seen from Pyongyang, this will likely be another sign that the United States and South Korea are a growing threat, and that North Korea will have to continue to develop more nuclear weapons to defend itself.”
He added, “This is a big dilemma — the dynamics of the two sides continuing to strengthen their capabilities to improve security also drives the decisions that will be seen to increase the risks. The deterrence wheel continues to turn and turn with no solution to the underlying problem.”
Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of the North Korean leader, vowed on Saturday local time to enhance Pyongyang’s “nuclear war deterrent” in response to the Washington Declaration. Referring to Biden as “an old man with no future,” without naming him, and naming Yoon while calling him “a fool,” Kim said the declaration “fabricated by the U.S. and south Korean authorities” will “expose” the “peace and security of Northeast Asia and the world … to more serious danger.”
Experts said the U.S.-South Korean alliance must consider greater regional threats from China as well as draw up bigger trilateral defense plans with Japan.
“The NCG is mainly focused on the Korean Peninsula, but it is important to understand that security coordination has to look at the broader regional picture to include coordination with Tokyo,” said Toby Dalton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It would be natural in that context to look broadly at perceived threats in the Indo-Pacific, to include those from China, and to discuss plans and capabilities,” he said.
Nuclear assurance and reliance
Dalton added the NCG “is largely about alliance cohesion and being responsive to ROK interests for stronger coordination on nuclear matters.”
Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said the same about the Washington Declaration establishing the NCG.
He said, “The main purpose was to reassure the South Korean government and the South Korean public that the U.S. is committed to extended deterrence to protect South Korea against North Korean nuclear and missile threats.”
He continued, “Deterrence is already very strong. [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un knows that any attack on the South, whether conventional or nuclear, would be met with a very strong response from the ROK and from the U.S.”
At the press conference, Biden said, “A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies or partners — is unacceptable and will result in the end of [the] regime, were it to take such an action.”
Under the renewed U.S. pledge to protect, South Korea agreed to have “full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitment” and “enduring reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.” Seoul also agreed to abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Kristensen said, “The most important goal for the United States has probably been to try to dampen South Korean ideas about developing its own nuclear weapons.”
By agreeing to rely on U.S. nuclear deterrence and follow its obligations under the NPT, Seoul effectively has renounced pursuing its own nuclear weapons program, according to experts.
At the same time, by reassuring its extended deterrence commitment, Washington dismissed a possibility of stationing U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea.
“The Biden administration has made clear that nuclear weapons will not be deployed to South Korea, but that Seoul will be closely tied to planning efforts as well as how South Korean conventional capabilities will be integrated into any U.S. nuclear operation,” said Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security and Korea expert at the U.S. Naval War College.
“The big question is whether the Washington Declaration will quell the calls in South Korea for its own nuclear weapons, and that remains to be seen.”
Kristensen said, “The South might feel better for a while but will probably continue to express doubts about the security commitment.”
Joint nuclear body
In place of its own nuclear program, South Korea opted to participate in U.S. nuclear planning through the NCG, which experts said is a significant development that will increase Seoul’s say in American nuclear planning for contingences on the peninsula.
However, Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a challenge is “the ability of the envisioned NCG to stay ahead of future North Korean military developments.”
He continued, “The U.S.-South Korea nuclear consultation group must demonstrate a capability to stay ahead of North Korea’s capability as they continue to expand.”
The scope of South Korea’s role in U.S. nuclear planning decisions would depend on how NCG agreements are implemented, including which agencies and who will be in charge, according to experts.
How much say South Korea has on U.S. decisions is “a question that can only be answered in the implementation of the agreement,” said Samore.
“We have the commitment from the U.S. to consult, jointly plan, exchange information. But we don’t know exactly how that will be translated into action until this consulting group is set up and begins to operate.”