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[News Focus] Why does Washington Declaration matter?

Experts diverge on whether declaration will effectively strengthen US extended deterrence

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : April 27, 2023 - 17:22

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) and US President Joe Biden inspect an honor guard at an official welcoming event ahead of their summit at the White House in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. (Yonhap - Pool photo) South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) and US President Joe Biden inspect an honor guard at an official welcoming event ahead of their summit at the White House in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. (Yonhap - Pool photo)

The leaders of South Korea and the United States agreed to launch a “Nuclear Consultative Group” to enable the allies to jointly conduct nuclear planning and sketch out scenarios of how the allies can use the US nuclear arsenal in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack.

The establishment of the NCG is the key part of the “Washington Declaration,” tailored to show the allies’ commitment to enhancing the viability of extended deterrence, which the US’ commitment to deter or respond to coercion and external attacks on US allies and partners with the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear weaponry.

The declaration was signed by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and US President Joe Biden on Wednesday at a critical juncture when the nuclear policy debate has continued to evolve in South Korea amid North Korea’s persisting explicit threats to strike targets in South Korean territory with tactical nuclear weapons.

South Korea's Defense Ministry on Thursday announces that it displays banners commemorating the 70th anniversary of the South Korea-US alliance on the exterior walls of the War Memorial of Korea and the Defense Convention in Yongsan-gu in central Seoul, from Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Kookbang Daily) South Korea's Defense Ministry on Thursday announces that it displays banners commemorating the 70th anniversary of the South Korea-US alliance on the exterior walls of the War Memorial of Korea and the Defense Convention in Yongsan-gu in central Seoul, from Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Kookbang Daily)

Significance and security implications

Despite the 70-year history of the alliance, Wednesday marks the first time that the allies have codified their commitment to strengthening the viability of US extended deterrence in a standalone document signed by the two leaders.

The NCG is an unprecedented bilateral consultative mechanism that focuses exclusively on sharing information about the operation of US nuclear assets and on joint nuclear planning in the event of a conflict with North Korea

The group aims to “strengthen extended deterrence, discuss nuclear and strategic planning, and manage the threat to the nonproliferation regime posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the declaration said, referring to North Korea by its official name.

“I think the allies are taking extended deterrence to the next level,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, told The Korea Herald. “South Korea will have a voice in nuclear planning that the US government will not be able to ignore. That amounts to a type of nuclear power sharing.”

The allies have operated different mechanisms to discuss ways to enhance the credibility and viability of US extended deterrence. The Deterrence Strategy Committee is designed to hold talks between South Korea’s Defense Ministry and the US Defense Department. The Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group -- which consists of South Korea and US vice ministers of foreign affairs and defense -- aims to have broad policy discussion and deliver a strategic message to the Kim Jong-un regime.

“But the Nuclear Consultative Group is solely tailored to share information, consultation, joint planning on the operation of (US) nuclear assets, and it operates at a vice-ministerial level,” a senior official at the Defense Ministry said Thursday on condition of anonymity.

“The purpose of the new consultative body is to serve as a platform that consolidates and integrates the government efforts of the US and South Korea, and the results of its discussions are reported directly to the commander in chief of each country,” the official said, highlighting that the group shows the whole-of-government approach of the allies to strengthen US extended deterrence.

The NCG is a standing body and holds regular meetings four times a year.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (left ) and US President Joe Biden smile during an official welcoming ceremony at the White House in Washington, on Wednesday. (Yonhap) South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (left ) and US President Joe Biden smile during an official welcoming ceremony at the White House in Washington, on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Pros

Kim Hyun-wook, director general of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, pointed out that the US had not shared any information on its nuclear weapons and nuclear and strategic weapon operations plans in case of contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. There had been no bilateral consultations on the matter.

But the Washington Declaration reflects joint efforts to build up a new mechanism that allows South Korea to play a bigger role and increase engagement in the multistage process to strengthen US extended deterrence.

The declaration was announced five months after South Korean and the US defense leaders agreed at the Security Consultative Meeting last November that both would work together to establish the four-stage mechanism consisting of information sharing, consultation, strategy planning and execution.

“It is unprecedented for the US to share information on its nuclear weapons, conduct joint nuclear planning, and execute plans jointly with another country at a bilateral level,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “Therefore, the establishment of the NCG is a groundbreaking step.”

NATO operates the multilateral Nuclear Planning Group, which is a senior body that covers a broad range of nuclear policy matters and comprises 30 members, except for France. But among the members, the US and the United Kingdom, which are part of five nuclear-weapon states, play a pivotal role.

Toby Dalton, a senior fellow and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the establishment of the NCG “shows the US treating South Korea on par with its other allies, and in some ways going beyond what it does with other allies.”

“The new group can discuss each side’s interests and objectives in various possible contingencies and come up with the best joint options for how to respond,” Dalton told The Korea Herald.

Under the Washington Declaration, South Korea’s to-be-established Strategic Command will conduct new table-top exercises with US Strategic Command which oversees the country’s nuclear triad. The outcomes of the discussion-based tabletop exercises develop into nuclear planning. South Korea and the US forces stage exercises involving strategic assets based on the plans.

“I find it hard to believe that anyone could perceive that it (the declaration) harms the ROK. The only people I can imagine complaining about are the zealots who believe that anything short of acquiring nuclear weapons is insufficient for South Korean security,” he said, referring to South Korea by the acronym of its official name, Republic of Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (standing, right) speaks during a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party on April 10, 2023, in this photo provided by North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency.(Yonhap) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (standing, right) speaks during a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party on April 10, 2023, in this photo provided by North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency.(Yonhap)

Cons

But in Seoul, some experts cast doubt on whether the Washington Declaration demonstrates the US’ genuine intent to strengthen extended deterrence.

Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the declaration stipulates South Korea’s full confidence in US extended deterrence commitments and South Korea’s compliance to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the US-ROK Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The declaration is also based on the US Nuclear Posture Review unveiled in October last year.

“In short, the Washington Declaration is a mere display to silence voices within South Korea calling for nuclear armament, redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, and nuclear sharing, without showing any change in the US policy,” Kim said.

Kim claimed that the US’ pledge to deploy a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine to the Korean Peninsula, which has not taken place since the early 1980s, does not strengthen the viability of US extended deterrence.

“A submarine equipped with a Trident II missile, with a range of 12,000 kilometers, would lose its strategic and tactical values if it were deployed too close to the Korean Peninsula and its location was exposed,” Kim said.

Kim Jung-sup, a vice president at the Sejong Institute, also underlined that changing the name of the consultative group doesn’t have much significance, given that the allies have operated different high-level consultative mechanisms such as the DSC and the EDSCG.

“I had hoped that the Washington Declaration would contain some concrete progress in bilateral discussion on how the two can better work together to strengthen extended deterrence. I’m a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn out that way,” he told The Korea Herald.

Kim underscored that the allies should focus on bringing about tangible outcomes on how they can jointly respond to contingencies and show them to the public to clear up South Korean doubts over the credibility of the US commitment to extended deterrence.

“Only such concrete outcomes will have a positive, long-term impact on the South Korean public perception of US extended deterrence.”

Jeffrey Robertson, an associate professor of diplomatic studies at Yonsei University, said the Washington Declaration will not stop the nuclear debate that has continued to emerge in South Korea.

“The Washington Declaration is reactive policy. It seeks to address an issue that has already gotten out of control. As is often the case with reactive policy it addresses the results of the problem (the nuclear debate) rather than the problem (concerns regarding sovereignty and independence),” he said in his email to the Korea Herald.

“The Washington Declaration does not harm the ROK, but nor does it help the ROK. The nuclear debate will reemerge when the next wannabe leader turns to insecurity, fear, nationalism and sovereignty to secure greater popular support.”

But Kim Hyun-wook underscored that Seoul has chosen the “best option among realistic and viable choices.”