WASHINGTON: The US agreed on Wednesday to offer South Korea additional information about its nuclear plans in the event of a conflict with North Korea, amid concerns about Pyongyang’s growing arsenal of missiles and bombs.
The announcement, which included a reiterated vow by Seoul not to develop its own nuclear bomb, came during White House talks between US President Joe Biden and South Korean leader Yoon Suk Yeol on subjects ranging from North Korea to semiconductor chips and trade to the Ukraine war.
Yoon said at a joint press conference that he and Biden had agreed on actions to boost South Korea’s defenses in response to North Korea’s threat.
“In the event of a North Korean nuclear attack, our two countries have agreed to immediate bilateral presidential consultations and promised to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly, and decisively using the full force of the alliance, including the United States’ nuclear weapons,” Yoon added.
Biden restated the US offer to North Korea to hold discussions about its nuclear and missile programmes, which North Korean leader Kim Jong UN has rejected.
The North Korean delegation to the UN did not respond to a request for comment.
Resisting North Korea
North Korea’s fast developing weapons programmes, notably ballistic missiles capable of reaching US cities, have aroused concerns about whether Washington will use nuclear weapons to defend South Korea under what it terms “extended deterrence.”
Opinion polls in South Korea reveal that a majority of people want Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons, something Washington opposes.
According to US officials, under a new “Washington Declaration,” the US will provide Seoul with deep insights into, and a voice in, US contingency planning to deter and respond to any nuclear incident in the region via a US-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group.
Washington will also send a ballistic-missile submarine to South Korea as a show of force, the first such visit since the 1980s, according to US officials.
However, Biden stated unequivocally that no US nuclear weapons would be stationed on South Korean soil.
“I have absolute authority as commander in chief and sole authority to use a nuclear weapon,” he added. “What the declaration means is that we’ll make every effort to consult with our allies when it’s appropriate, if any action is so called for.”
The agreed steps are “unlikely to either persuade North Korea off its current course of WMD development and testing or to quiet the debate inside South Korea about its own nuclear future,” according to Jenny Town of the Washington-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North. Sue Mi Terry of the Wilson Centre think tank saw the move as largely rhetorical and “a fig leaf” to dissuade South Korea.
According to Terry, if North Korea resumes nuclear bomb testing for the first time since 2017, it will cause more concern in South Korea and lead to requests for the country to build up its own nuclear arsenal or for the US to relocate tactical nuclear weapons there.
Yoon should be able to convince his local audience that Washington is taking Seoul’s concerns seriously by including Seoul more in nuclear discussions.
The Washington Declaration, according to Duyeon Kim of the Centre for a New American Security, is “a big win for the alliance and especially for South Korea.”One of the most noteworthy changes, according to her, was that the two sides were now simulating scenarios with a US nuclear retaliation, although in the past this had been deemed too classified to discuss.