- The Washington Declaration is an indicator of a robust partnership between Seoul and Washington, but it does not go far enough to tackle the ongoing downward spiral in relations with North Korea.
- The Declaration in Washington rightly notes that South Korea is backed by an American full range of capabilities, including nuclear.
- The Washington Declaration is already being met with scepticism by Seoul’s most ardent supporters of a domestic nuclear weapons program.
The seventieth anniversary of their Security Cooperation was marked last week by the United States and South Korea. In the midst of great fanfare, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol arrived in Washington for a state visit. The trip provided a significant opportunity for the United States to reassure South Korea that the alliance would be capable of thwarting any North Korean attack, including the use of nuclear weapons, despite the rapidly escalating nuclear threat that Seoul was facing from Pyongyang this respect, Yoon and United States President Joe Biden have presented a joint declaration in Washington that describes the evolution of the Korean alliance as it copes with new security conditions on the peninsula. The Washington declaration as stated by Biden, aims to “reinforce extended deterrence and respond to” North Korea’s developing nuclear threats. As an implied guarantee that Seoul will continue to be a nuclear-weapon-free state despite the escalating clamour for South Korea to have its own independent nuclear capacity, the proclamation also includes a reaffirm of South Korea’s current nuclear nonproliferation obligations.
What does the Declaration say?
The Washington Declaration can best be viewed as an upgrade to the U.S.-South Korea alliance’s operating system. It focuses on broadening the scope of alliance-wide talks on nuclear weapons issues and further integrating the US and South Korean militaries in ways that help prevent inadvertent escalation and support deterrence.
The US has pledged to “make every effort” to consult with South Korea before using nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Although there is no formal legal requirement for the United States to consult with allies prior to using nuclear weapons in their defence, this measure serves to show Seoul that the United States values its alliances by assuring Seoul that the U.S. president will consult with his South Korean counterpart in a crisis and can start seeking suggestions with Washington on nuclear weapons issues.
The declaration states that a new nuclear consultation group known as NCG will be set up. The NCG will serve as a platform for discussions on Nuclear Policy and Strategic Planning, in addition to the alphabet soup of current alliance policy consultations. In addition, the alliance is aiming at incorporating new measures that will allow South Korea to envisage supporting United States nuclear operations as part of its conventional capabilities. To that end, the two Parties will undertake new exercises and training.
Similar institutions and practices in NATO have been invoked by the NCG and its plans to increase South Korea’s conventional integration with US nuclear operations. For instance, the consultations of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group and the U.S.-chaired High-Level Group are likely to mirror those of the NCG. The Nuclear Cooperation Group could be a duplication of the current NATO consultations on US military capabilities and policies, in an international context between the United States and South Korea. However, the creation of the NCG has been driven by growing perceptions in South Korea that an NCG-like consultative body is needed in the current environment, one that is ideally nuclear, that is nuclear in its very name. In time, the NCG could become an example of a tripartite consultative mechanism composed of Japan and other Northeast Asian allies that would be significantly new to America’s expanded deterrence consultation with its treaty allies.
Impact of the Declaration on the Relationship
The declaration will open a new phase in U.S. and South Korea’s relationship as part of an alliance by providing for different types of American troops to be integrated into Korean forces also this will improve coordination of operational planning can reduce the chances that Seoul and Washington will inadvertently exacerbate crises unless they react in a coordinated way. The key will be to ensure that inter-alliance integration is ensured, as South Korea develops more advanced and capable conventional deterrent capabilities. The Washington Declaration also states that, although the specifics of this cooperation are not stated, the alliance will look for new ways to support American nuclear operations on and near the Korean Peninsula with South Korean conventional military assistance. This could entail direct South Korean conventional support for potential American nuclear operations, including conventional missiles and air support. Another scenario is that the alliance will adopt NATO-style policies, enabling South Korean fighters to support American bombers carrying nuclear weapons. Although similar procedures could be established between the United States and South Korea, the military importance of such exercises on the Korean Peninsula is diminished by North Korea’s scant and largely antiquated air defence capabilities.
When the US faced similar difficulties in Europe during the height of the Cold War, interwoven reassurances on extended deterrence and nonproliferation are implicit in the Washington Declaration. For instance, the structural context of the Washington Declaration and Biden’s reassurance of Yoon is similar to then-President Lyndon Johnson’s reassurance of West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard in 1965.
The Washington Declaration, however, is already being met with scepticism by Seoul’s most ardent supporters of a domestic nuclear weapons program. Historical comparisons are inherently flawed. Some supporters of nuclear weapons in Seoul, including some inside the Yoon administration, might go so far as to claim that their domestic advocacy was the main reason why Washington agreed to Seoul’s demands for extended deterrence from South Korea. U.S. officials were alarmed by Yoon’s comments in January that Seoul “could acquire its own nukes” and the Washington Declaration’s adoption of new measures could pose a moral hazard issue for the alliance as long as there is a continuing demand for nuclear assurance.
Does Washington’s announcement address North Korea’s issues?
However, maintaining allied insecurities is essential to the US strategy of extended deterrence. The work of assuring allies is never finished, and allies are never completely satisfied. Seoul’s demands on Washington are likely to reappear if the situation on the Korean Peninsula deteriorates significantly following a highly anticipated nuclear test by North Korea or a test launch of a full-range intercontinental ballistic missile into the Pacific Ocean. In this situation, intra-alliance problems are temporarily alleviated by the Washington Declaration.
In spite of these obstacles, Yoon and Biden may take steps to ensure that the Washington Declaration will continue to have a lasting impact on the Alliance while attaining its stated objectives in order to reinforce North Korea’s deterrence.
The Washington Declaration is an indicator of a robust partnership between Seoul and Washington, but it does not go far enough to tackle the ongoing downward spiral in relations with North Korea. There’s only one sentence about diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in the declaration. Although prospects continue to be dim for meaningful engagement, the United States and South Korea must recognize that assurances are complementary to credible deterrent threats against North Korea.
While the US will be motivated by alliance management to address Seoul’s concerns about extended deterrence through nuclear reassurance, Washington should be careful not to make extended deterrence synonymous with nuclear-extended deterrence. The Declaration in Washington rightly notes that South Korea is backed by an American full range of capabilities, including nuclear.
(The author is a post-graduate student in International Relations at Kalinga University, Raipur. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)