US-South Korea Nuclear Weapons Deal – What You Need to Know

Conor here: There is quite a bit wrong with the details in this article as it paints US actions in East Asia as mainly defensive and mocks those who say dialogue with North Korea would be more useful than increased militarization. Have at it, readers. One point in its favor is that does acknowledge this particular dangerous escalation has just as much to do with US efforts against China as it does with North Korea.

By Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor in Korean studies at Tufts University. Originally published at The Conversation

The United States and South Korea have unveiled an agreement under which leaders in Seoul will be handed an enhanced role in planning any nuclear response to a strike in the region by North Korea.

Announced at a state visit to Washington by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on April 26, 2023, the so-called “Washington Declaration” will see U.S. deployments of “strategic assets” around the Korean Peninsula, including an upcoming visit by a nuclear submarine. The last time the U.S. had nuclear weapons in South Korea was 1991

The Conversation asked Sung-Yoon Lee, an expert on U.S.-Korean relations at Tufts University, to explain what the decision to revamp nuclear relations means and why it has come now.

What is in the ‘Washington Declaration’?

Well, there’s strong language. Whereas the U.S. has repeatedly “reaffirmed” its commitment in the past to the defense of South Korea, the wording in the Washington Declaration is more robust. It builds on the language contained in the joint statement released during Biden’s visit to Seoul soon after Yoon assumed office in May 2022. On that occasion, the U.S. pledged its “extended deterrence commitment to the (Republic of Korea) using the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities.”

This time, lest there be doubt, that affirmation is made “in the strongest words possible.”

But what does that mean in real terms? First, the U.S. “commits to make every effort to consult with the (Republic of Korea) on any possible nuclear weapons employment on the Korean Peninsula.”

More substantively, the two sides commit “to engage in deeper, cooperative decision-making on nuclear deterrence,” including through “enhanced dialogue and information sharing regarding growing nuclear threats” to South Korea.

It will come as a welcome development to decision-makers in South Korea, although it raises questions about just how much intel on North Korea’s threat and capabilities the U.S. – and Japan, with its advanced signal intelligence systems – did not share with previous administrations in Seoul.

Second, the two allies will establish a new nuclear consultative group to “strengthen extended deterrence, discuss nuclear and strategic planning and manage” the growing threat posed by Pyongyang. This means Seoul now will have a seat at the table when it comes to planning any nuclear response strategy and in readying its “conventional support to U.S. nuclear operations in a contingency.”

In sum, Seoul will now have a much greater say in intel-sharing and planning for a joint long-term nuclear strategy, with a focus on its own role in any future flare-up in the Korean Peninsula.

It is a big step forward.

Why are the US and South Korea announcing this now?

The international security environment has drastically changed over the past year, necessitating credible countermeasures from the two allies, in cooperation with Japan. North Korea has fired well over 100 missiles since January 2022. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its many alleged war crimes have only pulled China and North Korea closer into its sphere. And China has gone beyond its usual “wolf-warrior diplomacy” rhetoric by conducting threatening military drills around Taiwan last August and, again, this April.

The Washington Declaration comes on the 70th anniversary of the alliance between Washington and Seoul. The timing serves as an opportunity to reflect on and reassess the relationship. But, no doubt, the main drivers in this strongly worded reaffirmation of the alliance are the recent actions taken by the governments in Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing.

How has South Korea’s position on nuclear options evolved?

The Korean Peninsula has been through two periods of actual “denuclearization” since the 1953 armistice that ended combat during the Korean War.

The first was in the 1970s when the U.S., catching wind of South Korea’s secret nuclear weapons program, threatened to withdraw all U.S. troops from the South unless Seoul completely dismantled the program. And, so, the government abandoned its nuclear ambitions.

The second came in 1991 when the U.S. and South Korea – perhaps anticipating the coming collapse of the Soviet empire and a severely debilitated North Korea – agreed to withdraw all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from the South, even as the North was working on its own nuclear program while vigorously talking “denuclearization.

But in recent years, public opinion in South Korea has strongly shifted toward self-nuclearization rather than rely on the U.S. stockpile off South Korea’s shores. North Korea’s relentless pursuit of more powerful nuclear and missile capabilities, starting with the resumption of ballistic missiles tests in May 2019 after an 18-month lull, has stiffened views in the South.

President Yoon himself floated the idea of self-nuclearization earlier this year. But the Washington Declaration appears to have tempered down such sentiment. In it, Yoon “reaffirmed the (Republic of Korea’s) longstanding commitment” to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would prevent the country from building up its own nuclear weapons stockpile.

How will the declaration affect regional tensions?

A staple of North Korean propaganda is that its arms program is a response to U.S. “hostile policy” – which Pyongyang defines as anything from Washington raising concerns about its egregious human rights record to the stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea and joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

As such, it is reasonable to assume that Pyongyang will respond with a threatening act or two in the coming days. Using the Washington Declaration as cover, expect North Korea to embark on another brazen act of defiance. Last December, Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister and deputy, threatened an intercontinental ballistic missile test on a normal trajectory, rather than the steep angle launches that avoid threatening nearby countries. And in 2017, North Korea’s former foreign minister Ri Yong Ho suggested that Kim Jong Un was considering testing a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific. Either would represent a ratcheting up of North Korea’s provocations.

China, meanwhile, is likely to fall back on its decades-old mantra that issues on the Korean Peninsula need to be resolved “through dialogue” – a position that not only fails to penalize Pyongyang but indirectly empowers the isolationist state.

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  1. Alan F.

    To what extent is the US drive to be the nuclear deterrent for countries like South Korea, Japan, and Australia, an attempt for the US to stay politically relevant and commercially influential as its direct commercial power fades and its non-nuclear military might is clearly challenged by China?

    Could this be more about the US trying to preserve its power position than the particulars of the other countries involved?

    1. Louis Fyne

      ” US trying to preserve its power position than the particulars ”

      Yes, and to placate Japan.

      There is no technological hurdle for South Korea (or Taiwan-Japan) to get nuclear weapons. And practically, any South Korean nuclear arsenal would be of no threat to China .

      But a nation with nuclear weapons is a nation with an (potentially) independent foreign policy. See France during DeGaulle up to Chirac.

      And if S. Korea has nukes, then Japan will want nukes. If japan has nukes, Japan could be tempted to go the way of DeGaulle France.

      1. Louis Fyne

        As long as South Korea has no nuclear weapons, it’s a convenient excuse for the US military to maintain its presence in South Korea—even though in the event of any war, it’s the South koreans who will have operational control of the war (a recent shift).

        South Korea is <250 miles from eastern China and ~200 miles from Manchuria.

        1. LarryMotuz

          Yes. Let no one pretend that this nuclear deployment has little to nothing to do with China.

      2. TMR

        More than that, Japan with nukes would absolutely be crossing a Chinese red line, to the point they’d likely launch a missile strike on the centrifuges. And if that happens, they’d likely figure it’s worth preempting a US Navy response, so World War III would be on at that point.

  2. The Rev Kev

    It was only a day or so ago that John Bolton was saying-

    “Having tactical nuclear weapons back on the peninsula would be clear evidence of our resolve and determination to deter North Korea,” Bolton told Reuters on the sidelines of a forum at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul on Tuesday. Bolton has cultivated a reputation for hawkish foreign policy stances throughout a decades-long career in Washington.’

    He must have gotten word and wanted to benefit from it by getting ahead of it. South Korea may be getting nervous because they have been supplying weapons to the Ukraine so it is only a matter of time until the Russians supply North Korea with weapons systems to make like difficult for the South Koreans as payback.

    1. Alan F.

      The Neocons, reptilian as they are, have had their hands in all presidential administrations since Reagan (courtesy of GHW Bush and entourage). Part of the furor towards Trump was because he wasn’t always on board with their plans. Obama campaigned in 2008 on a platform that was contrary to the Neocon agenda (get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan, stop being world cop), yet his admin adopted most of the Neocon agenda once in office. It may have all been an act, or he may have received the “you will do this” private lecture upon taking office.

      So I wouldn’t assume that Bolton was speculating or front-running. He likely is still in the loop with the people who are openly part of the Biden admin.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    So far as I can see, this is seen by the South Koreans (or to be precise, supporters of Yoon) as a diplomatic victory – its no secret the South Koreans have the infrastructure in place for a nuclear deterrent – they have medium range ballistic missiles and even ballistic missile carrying submarines, along with an advanced nuclear industry. They never really abandoned their aspirations, they keep on developing the infrastructure, they have just not taken the final step (a working warhead) yet, so far as we know. They could probably build one within a matter of months.

    The sabre rattling over nuclear weapons was seen as an attempt by Yoon to shake some concessions out of the US, and in effect, ensure that they are consulted more closely on military policy in the region.

    Whether or not this worked or whether the US just threw Yoon a bone for domestic consumption is hard to say. Yoon has strong support among Korean-Americans, must more than the previous incumbent and this always has to be a factor in US policy towards RoK. So there is a lot going on here, hard to disentangle all the various threads.

    1. hk

      Hard to tell what’s going on in SK–there are shades of Germany, with the professional diplomats and business community deathly afraid of causing problems vis a vis China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Yoon seems very much tone deaf towards them, and there are many in his own party who have not forgotten that Yoon was formerly a right hand man to Moon Jae In who got parachuted to be their presidential candidate after getting into a fight with his former boss.

    2. Aurelien

      Agreed: this represents quite a victory for the South Koreans, who have been moving steadily towards strategic independence from the US since the 1990s. They got to the point some years ago where they would have a determining role on decision-making in any conventional conflict, and they’re now moving towards the same objective with decision-making in a nuclear crisis. The Korean concern has always been that the US would cut some kind of a deal, or start a war, over their heads, and the threat they had was that of developing their own nuclear systems under national control. As you say, they still could – they have the Lego kit, all they need to do is put it together. But this agreement represents a step forward, and I suspect that in five years or so there’ll be another incremental change, if indeed the US is still a major actor by then. Incidentally, it’s the Koreans, not the US, who have most of what little intelligence there is on the NK nuclear programme, and they’ve been using intelligence to manipulate the US foe decades.

  4. ebookreader

    Yun’s arms aid to Ukraine resulted in Russia becoming involved in the Korean Peninsula.. It’s not North Korea’s nuclear weapons that South Korea should be worried about, but the advanced weapons that Russia and China are supplying to North Korea. The supply of advanced weapons to North Korea by China and Russia would not only burden South Korea, but also the U.S. military and Japan.

    1. digi_owl

      Heck, NK has enough convention artillery aimed at Seoul to flatten it within hours of the shooting starting. Maybe they are even hiding some thermobaric shells as well to speed up the job.

  5. digi_owl

    It is deeply worrying that the only political carrot USA seem to have left is nuclear proliferation…

    1. Adam B

      The US elites are more than happy to start a nuclear war. As long as they end on top, they’ll be ecstatic.

      1. digi_owl

        It really do seem like they have come to believe they can just retreat to some ranch in the hills or bunker in New Zealand come a nuclear war.

        And that should produce a panic in any and all of us, as one thing that kept the leaders from pushing the button was a deep understanding that they had nowhere to escape to. That it was not a conventional war where they could hide it out in some bunker or overseas.

  6. Cetra Ess

    I had always thought the South Koreans viewed North Koreans as family, their lost brothers and sisters, and there was always a chance they could get over their differences – the S. Koreans would like that, the problem is the N. Korean leadership, they’ve got the country in their grip in a terrible way, they’re the illness afflicting not-so-distant relations. It’s not even so much that they’re “commies” (I know, they’re not really). The Neocons, of course, will do anything to keep the two at war.

    So to me, this feels like there might have been some emerging risk of detente or peace breaking out that the Neocons felt they needed to move to thwart or felt they needed to reinforce, or increase, the gap between the two.

    Neocons (and I include Biden and Hilary in that category) always feel threatened by peace, need the world to be at war for their mission to succeed. Therefore, they’ll always pursue whatever policy increases the chances of war.

  7. p fitzsimon

    Why not ask China for help in de-nuclearizing N Korea in return for which we will help to keep S. Korea and Japan from nuclearizing?

  8. Roland

    All those countries need their own independent nuclear forces.

    It would be good for PRC, too, since those countries wouldn’t need US protection if they had enough power of their own. Even a nuclear-armed Taiwan would be in PRC’s long-run best interest.

    If the USA won’t cooperate with the nuclear armament of SK, Taiwan, or Japan, then the Chinese should offer to do so! That would neatly check US hegemony, at little risk to PRC. It would also be a diplomatic coup worldwide, since China’s behaviour would be in stark contrast to all the stupid empires which have afflicted humanity.

    A proliferationist stance could gain PRC a position of genuine world leadership, providing a logical alternative to the obsolete, futile, boring tropes of hegemonies, satellites, dominos, and entangling alliances.

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