The United States’ pledge to reinforce its nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea has failed to quiet some South Korean conservatives who want their country to develop nuclear weapons.
Under the so-called Washington Declaration, which was unveiled Wednesday as U.S. President Joe Biden hosted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for a state visit, the United States vowed to deploy more “strategic assets,” such as nuclear-capable submarines, long-range bombers and aircraft carriers, to South Korea.
In return, South Korea stated its “full confidence” in the U.S. defense commitment and reaffirmed it would not pursue nuclear weapons.
The two allies also announced the creation of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) meant to give Seoul a better idea about how Washington would use nuclear weapons in a conflict with North Korea.
Early indications suggest many conservatives within South Korea’s policymaking circles support the deal, saying it reinforces the credibility of what is commonly referred to as U.S. extended deterrence.
"Our people will effectively feel that they are sharing nuclear weapons with the United States," said Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s principal deputy national security adviser, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Kim Gi-hyeon, chairman of South Korea’s main conservative People Power Party, touted the agreement as “very meaningful” and a “significant diplomatic success.”
However, some South Korean conservatives outside the government criticized the announcement, raising questions about how much the deal will placate nuclear weapons advocates.
A Thursday editorial in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper slammed the Yoon-Biden statement for putting “nuclear shackles” on South Korea.
“Looking at the Washington Declaration, it seems the United States is more concerned about South Korea’s nuclear development than about neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” the editorial read.
Cheong Seong-chang, one of South Korea’s most outspoken nuclear weapons proponents, called the deal “an important achievement,” but added: “I don’t think this agreement will weaken anyone’s support for independent nuclear armament.”
“It’s regrettable that we voluntarily gave up our right to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty … when the threat of North Korea’s nuclear tactics against the South is becoming increasingly obvious,” said Cheong, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul.
No longer fringe
The idea of South Korea getting nuclear weapons was once a fringe idea. But it has gone mainstream in conservative circles in response to North Korea’s growing nuclear capability and the rise of “America First” political ideas in the United States.
Earlier this year, Yoon himself suggested the U.S. nuclear umbrella was an outdated concept. He later raised the possibility of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons if its security concerns were not addressed.
If South Korea were to go nuclear, some analysts fear it could set off a chain reaction that would lead to many other countries eventually acquiring their own nuclear arsenals.
Although Yoon quickly walked back his comments, that did not stop a wave of analysis by South Korean pundits, politicians and even scholars at government-funded research organizations.
The debate may endure; opinion polls consistently suggest a strong majority of South Koreans supports getting nuclear weapons.
A first step, but toward what?
Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general in the South Korean army, is among those who has expressed an openness to nuclear armament.
Asked whether the Yoon-Biden deal would quiet the nuclear debate, Chun responded: “No. But we need to give it a try.”
In Chun’s view, the NCG consultation mechanism is a positive development, but will be effective only if it evolves into a regular forum where U.S. officials can learn “what their ally is thinking and why they’re thinking that way.”
Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the conservative Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, also expressed mixed feelings about the Washington Declaration.
“The Biden administration has delivered what the South Korean side has been demanding for a while now, which is a greater level of input into the nuclear planning process,” Go said.
“But it is still no full NATO Nuclear Planning Group with forward-deployed assets,” he added. “Only then will independent nuclear armament advocates lose their influence.”
Some South Korean conservatives have called for a NATO-style arrangement in which South Korean personnel would be trained to deliver U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict.
However, U.S. officials this week said they did not envision returning nuclear weapons to South Korea. They also stressed that the U.S. president would retain sole authority to authorize nuclear attacks, which is true of every U.S. ally security arrangement.
Given such restrictions, some observers predict South Korea’s reassurance demands will only grow, especially as the North Korean nuclear threat increases.
“It is never enough for those who think nuclear weapons are additive,” said Jon B. Wolfsthal, a senior adviser to the nuclear disarmament group Global Zero. “The threats will not ease, and so they will want more nuclear options, different types and so on. That is the lesson of the last 75 nuclear years.”
But others say reassurance measures and an effective North Korea policy are the best way to prevent South Korea from going nuclear.
“If South Koreans see North Korea continue to advance its nuclear weapons capability and perceive the U.S. as not being proactive enough to solve this problem, then voices advocating for South Korea nuclear weapons will only crescendo,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based Korea specialist at the Center for a New American Security.
For now, it is a victory to simply lower the volume of the South Korean nuclear debate, insisted Christopher Green, a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group.
“I doubt either side expected to be able to have the problem go away completely,” he said. “At any rate, the can has been kicked down the road.”
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.