South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and US President Biden unveiled the Washington Declaration during President Yoon’s state visit to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the US-South Korea alliance. This landmark agreement aims to strengthen military ties and bolster the credibility of US commitments to defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear threats.
Historically, South Korea has sought increased US military support, especially since endorsing a non-proliferation treaty in 1975. In January, President Yoon suggested South Korea might contemplate developing nuclear weapons if the US failed to provide robust military backing and include South Korea in deterrence talks regarding potential North Korean aggression.
The Washington Declaration signifies a major shift in US-South Korea relations, permitting US nuclear submarines to dock in South Korea for the first time in 40 years. This gesture demonstrates America’s readiness to employ its nuclear capabilities to deter potential North Korean offensives. Additionally, the declaration creates a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) between the two nations, inspired by nuclear consultations within NATO. The NCG enables joint planning and response execution to North Korean nuclear use.
The Washington Declaration also reasserts South Korea’s commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), indirectly vowing not to pursue independent nuclear weapons capabilities. The Yoon administration prefers an alliance-centered response, increasing the likelihood of countering North Korean attempts to exploit differences between the US and South Korea due to ongoing military advancements.
The NCG and the Washington Declaration face two primary challenges. First, the NCG must outpace future North Korean military developments, as North Korea has consistently broadened its missile capabilities, delivery platforms, range, speed, and credibility. As a result, expeditious development and execution of joint response mechanisms should be prioritized.
The second challenge lies in maintaining visible efforts to reinforce deterrence against North Korea beyond the summit. Competing priorities, such as the war in Ukraine, rivalry with China, and domestic politics, necessitate continuous focus and exertion of political will at the leadership level while establishing more robust nuclear consultation mechanisms with South Korea.
Last month’s Pentagon leaks revealed that US intelligence agencies had surveilled high-ranking South Korean officials. Although both sides publicly downplayed the leaks’ significance, South Korean leaders reportedly felt deceived. The Washington Declaration may be an attempt to repair relations with this vital Asian ally.
Notably, the Biden administration’s North Korea strategy diverges from its predecessor; it maintains no formal contact with North Korean leaders and seems to have abandoned diplomacy. North Korea conducted more missile tests in 2022 than in the previous five years combined and is thought to possess intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of targeting any city in mainland US, along with an undetermined number of nuclear warheads. (CFR)
North Korea is estimated to have an arsenal of 60 to 70 nuclear weapons, and the capacity to produce six to seven nuclear weapons per year. (Institute for Science and International Security)