US President Joe Biden greets South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol before a State Dinner at the White House on April 26 in Washington, DC. , photo credit: AFP
the story So Far: On April 25, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrived in the United States to celebrate the 70th anniversary of US-South Korea bilateral relations. A highlight of the visit was the signing of the “Washington Declaration” as a nuclear deterrent strategy.
What inspired you to visit the US?
The successful launch of North Korea’s Hwasong-8 solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a key component for nuclear weapons delivery, seems to have begun the South Korean president’s visit to the US. Mr. Yun aimed to advance the strategic partnership by building an alliance on an expanded nuclear deterrence plan against North Korea’s territorial aggression. The Washington Agreement will begin a new phase in the partnership between Seoul and Washington. “Our two countries have agreed to hold immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of a nuclear attack by North Korea and to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly and decisively, using the full might of the coalition, including the nuclear weapons of the United States of America. Promised,” Mr. Yoon said.
What does the Washington Declaration say?
The agreement outlines cooperation towards resolution.
According to the announcement, an American nuclear ballistic submarine will be stationed in the Korean Peninsula; A Nuclear Consultative Group will be set up to formulate principles for a joint response strategy; South Korea will receive intel from the US regarding nuclear progress; And the US will strengthen South Korea’s nuclear deterrent capabilities through joint military training programs and an annual intergovernmental simulation. The declaration ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty, meaning that South Korea would not venture into building its independent nuclear capabilities and would instead focus on preventive measures through an alliance-based approach. It also mandates the US President as the sole ‘sole authority’ to use America’s nuclear arsenal in the event of a nuclear confrontation. While the existence of the agreement is based on the security needs of South Korea, the policy reflects big power politics where the interests of the big power (US) take priority.
Why is the US not keen on South Korea having a nuclear arsenal?
South Korea’s nuclear development program, supported by former President Park Chung Hee, was disrupted due to US pressure. In the 1990s, the US withdrew one hundred nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of its “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty”. The US was hoping to disarm North Korea itself. Washington made a false assumption that it could stop North Korea’s weapons production by taking out South Korea’s nuclear capability.
Second, the Nuclear Posture Review 2022 reflects a change in the US narrative where it is now concerned about North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities. The report states that North Korea poses a “deterrent dilemma for the United States and its allies and partners”, and that “a crisis or conflict on the Korean Peninsula could involve multiple nuclear-armed actors, which could lead to widespread increase the risk of conflict.
And finally, the US seeks to control global nuclear weapons production. It has been reluctant to allow South Korea to develop its own nuclear arsenal because it would hinder its longstanding efforts to control nuclear production in the world. The assurance that the US and its nuclear weapons will protect its allies by being responsible for maintaining stability in the region is consistent with the larger goal of non-proliferation. Washington plays a major influence in South Korea’s foreign policy objectives, and Seoul will not let the US down as they are an important supporter of their cause.
What has been the regional response?
The Washington Declaration advocates a nuclear deterrence policy in the region with the aim of balancing the power dynamics against North Korea. While the objective is to reduce the threat, the physical deployment of arsenals may be perceived by hostile actors as a direct threat and used as leverage to act aggressively.
China criticized the deal, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning saying, “What the US is doing… provokes conflicts between camps, undermines the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the strategic interests of other countries.” Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, warned that the declaration “will only result in the peace and security of Northeast Asia and the world facing a more serious threat.”
What is the domestic response?
The South Korean public is skeptical about US support. A poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations reported that 71% of South Koreans wanted to build their own nuclear weapons. With an aggressive North Korea next door, they would prefer to have their own deterrence.
The writer is research assistant at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru