South Korea agreed not to pursue its own nuclear weapons program, in return for a greater decision-making role in U.S. contingency planning in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack and a more muscular U.S. presence in the region.
The deal is part of the so-called Washington Declaration, announced Wednesday, as President Joe Biden hosts South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in a state visit to celebrate the two countries’ 70th year of bilateral relations and discuss the allies’ future relationship.
“Our mutual defense treaty is ironclad, and that includes our commitment to extended deterrence,” said Biden during his joint White House press conference with Yoon, referring to the 1953 agreement signed at the end of the Korean War that commits Washington to help South Korea defend itself, particularly from North Korea.
He repeated a line from his administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review that a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime.
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Speaking through an interpreter, Yoon called the Washington Declaration “an unprecedented expansion and strengthening” of the extended deterrence strategy — a term also known as the American nuclear umbrella. It says the United States will respond to attacks on its allies and partners “across the spectrum of potential nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios.”
“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,” Yoon said.
In a briefing to reporters Tuesday, senior administration officials said that under the Washington Declaration, Seoul will “maintain its nonnuclear 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 signatories from developing nuclear weapons.
The two countries will also establish the U.S.–Republic of Korea 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.
Biden is trying to demonstrate that his pledge to defend South Korea is “credible and rock-solid,” said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Giving South Korea a greater say in nuclear planning is needed to address the country’s increasing sense of vulnerability from North Korea, Snyder told VOA.
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.
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 Global Affairs 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 U.S. nuclear ballistic submarine visits to South Korea, which has not happened since the early 1980s.
The U.S. removed its last tactical nuclear weapon from South Korea in 1991 as part of a broader global nuclear drawdown agreed by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a conservative think tank in Seoul, told VOA that short of positioning American nuclear weapons in the region, which is what proponents of South Korean nuclear deterrence want, establishing the NCG is the next best thing. The NCG is similar to the mechanism used by NATO allies as they deployed thousands of nuclear weapons across Europe during the Cold War.
Go told VOA that 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.” The declaration will not end the debate for Seoul arming itself with nuclear capabilities, he added.
The nuclear deployment debate will also continue in the United States. Senators Jim Risch and Roger Wicker, two leading Republicans in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee, are pushing for the NCG to go further to discuss the “circumstances under which a return of U.S. nuclear weapons to the Korean theater would become necessary.”
A senior administration official said the NCG will not determine when to launch nuclear strikes, as that is “the sole authority” of the U.S. president.
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.
Sharon Squassoni, international affairs professor at George Washington University focusing on nuclear risk reduction, is concerned the declaration will spark more instability.
“References to exercises and nuclear planning will be seen as provocative by North Korea, ratcheting up tensions instead of decreasing them,” she told VOA.
While Washington and Seoul appear in lockstep regarding security, they’re at odds over the tax credit for American-made electric vehicles provided by Biden’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which Seoul sees as a protectionist move against South Korean automakers.
In his attempt to outcompete Beijing on semiconductor production, Biden also wants Seoul to join his administration’s ban on exports of chips and chipmaking equipment to China, a move that is hurting South Korean companies that rely heavily on Beijing.
“We’re not going to sit back and be in a position where you don’t have access to those semiconductors,” Biden said, adding that his policies are “creating jobs in South Korea.”
Just two weeks before Yoon’s visit, leaked U.S. documents suggested the administration was spying on South Korean security officials who were uneasy over the prospect of Biden pressuring Yoon to sell more ammunitions to Ukraine. Seoul has been reluctant to export weapons to Kyiv due to fears that Russia would retaliate by providing support for North Korea but has been backfilling U.S. and Polish ammunition stocks to replace what they have sent to Ukraine.
Yoon said he will wait for U.S. investigation results and continue to communicate on the matter.
VOA's Anita Powell, William Gallo and Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.