Marking the 70th anniversary of their security alliance, President of South Korea Yoon Suk Yeol, met US President Joe Biden on 26 April 2023. While the two sides signed multiple agreements, they also unveiled the Washington Declaration. South Korea reaffirmed its commitment to compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation regime, while the US reassured the country of security commitments to bolster deterrence against North Korea’s advancing nuclear threat. Though the Declaration received positive feedback from several experts as a constructive response, it represents only piecemeal solutions falling short of providing a perfect recipe to establish long-lasting stability on the Peninsula. The Declaration’s inherent limitations, including meagre role of South Korea’s decision-making in nuclear planning; reduced independence of its Strategic Command operations; and narrow focus on deterrence, necessitate a thorough evaluation to underscore its implications with regard to stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The Washington Declaration reinforces the US-ROK enduring security cooperation by committing to a ‘combined defence posture’. The US pledged to ‘consult with the ROK on any possible nuclear weapons employment on the Korean Peninsula’ by creating a new Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG). While the US committed to increase ‘regular visibility of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula’, the two sides also agreed to connect the ‘ROK Strategic Command and the US-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC)’.
President Yoon appreciated the Washington Declaration, calling it an ‘unprecedented’ step towards strengthening the US’ nuclear extended deterrence policy. Some experts commended the Declaration as significant in terms of strengthening deterrence and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and persuading South Korea that its reliance on US’ extended deterrence remains preferable to developing its own nuclear weapons capability. Earlier, in January 2023, President Yoon had expressed his frustration with the US’ ineffective security commitments in the face of North Korea’s growing nuclear threat and indicated that his country may consider developing tactical nuclear weapons. The Declaration may appear a success in taming President Yoon’s temptations for developing indigenous nuclear weapons capability.
However, the new measures introduced in the Declaration are both ambiguous and limited. With regards to ambiguities, President Yoon himself misquoted the new measures noting that in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack, the US and South Korea would respond using ‘the full force of the alliance including the United States’ nuclear weapons.’ The Declaration’s text on the other hand asserts that DPRK’s nuclear attack would be met with a ‘decisive response’, without mentioning nuclear weapons. The language of the Declaration, hence, leaves room for interpretation. It suggests that the US may not be obliged to use nuclear weapons, although the country would consult South Korea on any ‘possible nuclear weapons employment’. Such misinterpretations expose ambiguities that could potentially frustrate the government and the public in Seoul.
With regards to limitations, the connection of South Korea’s Strategic Command and the US-ROK CFC may also face domestic pushback if seen as a concession made by the country. South Korea’s Strategic Command is responsible for devising and executing pre-emptive strikes, as well as managing air and missile defence operations. It serves as a significant source of deterrence to North Korean aggression through massive retaliation. However, the connection between ROK Strategic Command and the US-ROK CFC serves to enhance the former’s operations and training, while also being a tool in limiting unintended escalation at times of crisis. The public may view this intra-alliance integration as the waning of the independence of the ROK’ Strategic Command to operate autonomously.
Moreover, the efficacy of the NCG appears marginal in meeting Seoul’s deterrence needs. While it allows the latter to consult with Washington on nuclear and strategic planning, the NCG is similar to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) in terms of joint consultation. According to a NATO factsheet, as a forum, the NPG plays a decision-making role for framing nuclear policy and posture, and ‘political control over aspects of nuclear missions, including nuclear sharing.’ Nuclear sharing implies ‘Allies nuclear deterrence missions and political responsibilities’, it does not mean ‘sharing of nuclear weapons.’ It is also important to note that the NPG does not involve decisions on target selection, nuclear operations, or command and control, as those responsibilities fall under the purview of the US Strategic Command. Consequently, the NCG may merely serve as a consultation forum, like the NPG, providing South Korea with information on US’ conventional and nuclear planning. It does not grant authority to determine the use of nuclear weapons, which remains sole prerogative of the US President.
Besides NCG, the regular visits of US nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs) to the Korean Peninsula appear to have limited effectiveness in deterring North Korea. These submarines already possess long-range missiles capable of striking North Korea from afar, eliminating the need to bring them closer to the Peninsula. In fact, deploying SSBNs nearby would compromise their stealth capabilities and increase the risk of detection, contradicting the fundamental principle of deterrence. Furthermore, such deployments do not significantly differ from visits by US aircraft carriers or nuclear-capable bombers flying over the Peninsula. Despite the presence of these bombers or carriers, North Korea has persisted in conducting missile tests. These assertions imply that the Declaration may not adequately address South Korea’s security concerns nor entirely sate its domestic population. In fact, experts have speculated that public support for indigenous nuclear weapons may increase as a result.
Additionally, the Declaration has been criticised by China and Russia, denouncing the deployment of US SSBNs as destabilising for the region. North Korea also found the Declaration provocative, noting that it would further ‘perfect a nuclear war deterrent’.
Given these issues, the Washington Declaration is unlikely to provide lasting stability on the Peninsula as it appears to be merely a symbolic arrangement to allay South Korea’s concerns regarding the US’ security assurances, instead, it may further destabilise the region.
The US and its allies must couple the security arrangements with intensified diplomatic initiatives to engage North Korea. Pyongyang has been strengthening its nuclear deterrent partly due to former US President Trump’s failed diplomacy. Furthermore, actions taken by the Biden Administration, such as conducting joint exercises and imposing sanctions without offering any concessions for negotiations, have only served to provoke North Korea further. Pragmatic analysis suggests that for the resolution of the standoff on the Korean Peninsula, it is imperative for the US to initiate talks with Kim Jong-Un’s regime without preconditions, with the assistance of China and Russia. Collaborative diplomatic efforts hold the potential to pave the way for sustainable progress and de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula.
Moiz Khan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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