What is the context?
- South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited the U.S. on 25th April to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
- During the visit “Washington Declaration” was signed which outlines a nuclear deterrence strategy.
What prompted the U.S. visit?
- The successful launch of North Korea’s Hwasong-8 solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) triggered the U.S. visit of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
- Mr. Yoon aimed to advance the strategic partnership and draw an alliance over an extended nuclear deterrence plan against North Korea’s regional aggression.
- The Washington agreement will launch a new phase in the partnership between Seoul and Washington.
- The 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.
The Washington Declaration: Key Points
- Deployment of an American nuclear ballistic submarine in the Korean peninsula
- Formation of a nuclear consultative group to formulate principles of joint response tactics
- South Korea to receive intelligence from the U.S. regarding nuclear advancements
- Joint military training programs and an annual intergovernmental simulation to strengthen South Korea’s nuclear deterrence capabilities
- South Korea to focus on deterrence measures through an alliance-based approach, reaffirming the non-proliferation Treaty and not creating its own independent nuclear capabilities
- U.S. President as the sole authority to use the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. in the event of a nuclear confrontation.
The Washington Declaration outlines cooperation towards nuclear deterrence and reaffirms the non-proliferation Treaty.
The agreement reflects the security needs of South Korea but also highlights big power politics where the interests of the larger power (U.S.) take precedence.
Why does the US not support South Korea having a nuclear arsenal?
- Historical Pressure
- South Korea’s nuclear development program was hindered due to U.S. pressure in the past.
- The US withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea in the 1990s as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the hope of making North Korea disarm itself.
- The US made an erroneous assumption that it could deter North Korea’s weapons production by extracting South Korea’s nuclear capacity.
- Concerns about North Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities
- The Nuclear Posture Review 2022 reflects a shift in the US narrative towards concern about North Korea’s progressing nuclear capacities.
- This report states that North Korea creates “deterrence dilemmas for the United States and its Allies and partners,” and that “a crisis or conflict on the Korean Peninsula could involve a number of nuclear-armed actors, raising the risk of broader conflict.”
- Global Non-Proliferation Efforts
- The US wants to control global nuclear arms production.
- Allowing South Korea to develop its own nuclear arsenal would hinder the prolonged efforts of controlling nuclear production worldwide.
- The US believes that its own nuclear weapons would protect its allies and maintain stability in the region, aligning with the larger goal of non-proliferation.
- Washington plays a major role in South Korea’s foreign policy objectives, and Seoul would rather not disappoint the US as they are a vital supporter of their cause.
What is the response to the Washington Declaration?
- China criticized the agreement that it “provokes confrontation between camps, undermines the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the strategic interests of other countries.”
- North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, warned that the declaration would “only result in making peace and security of North-East Asia and the world be exposed to more serious danger.”
2. 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 want to build their own nuclear weapons.
- With an aggressive North Korea in the neighborhood, they prefer having their own deterrence.
The way forward for South Korea is to continue engaging with the US and other regional powers to address North Korea’s nuclear threat through diplomatic means. They can also strengthen their own defense capabilities through joint military training programs and annual intergovernmental simulations. However, South Korea should also be cautious about the potential consequences of pursuing nuclear weapons, such as increased regional tension and risks of nuclear conflict. Ultimately, a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue should be the primary goal for all parties involved.
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