The recent Washington Declaration between the United States and South Korea has been making headlines due to its stern warning to North Korea. The declaration states that if North Korea uses its nuclear weapons against the US or its ally South Korea, it would mean “the end” of Kim Jong Un’s regime. But how significant is this statement, and what does the declaration actually do?
The Washington Declaration is a set of new steps that boost US-South Korean military cooperation and information sharing. It includes the creation of a “Nuclear Consultative Group” to give South Korea additional insight into US planning for major contingencies and “a voice in those deliberations”. It also includes the regular deployment of a US nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) to South Korea – something that has not happened since the 1980s – and other measures, including more information sharing in the event of a North Korean attack. However, there are no plans to station US nuclear weapons in South Korea, and some analysts doubt the declaration’s practical value.
The state visit of South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol to the US undoubtedly “represents a new high-water mark for US-South Korea relations, with the breadth and depth of security, economic, and cultural cooperation on full display”, according to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. Yoon has been trying to reassure the South’s increasingly nervous public about the US commitment to so-called “extended deterrence”, where US assets – including nuclear weapons – serve to prevent attacks on allies. However, a major problem is not the agreement but the US political landscape, which means the agreement could be worthless after the 2024 presidential election there, according to Karl Friedhoff at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The US’s “extended deterrence” protection for South Korea rests on a simple assumption: that the US would retaliate if North Korea uses nuclear weapons against South Korea. However, North Korea’s arsenal has grown, and it now has intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach US cities, making the cost of defending South Korea potentially far higher. A majority of South Koreans now believe the country should develop its own nuclear weapons, recent surveys show. Under the agreement, South Korea reaffirmed its commitment to “its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime”. “One thing was clear: there was an implied agreement that Seoul would not go nuclear,” said Soo Kim, policy practice area lead at LMI Consulting and a former CIA analyst. “Seoul’s nuclear ambitions have been capped.”
Closer cooperation between the US and South Korea is bound to concern Kim Jong Un’s regime, and there could be more missile launches to demonstrate this, experts say. In public, “North Korea will downplay the message of reassurance by the US regarding nuclear deterrence”, according to Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean army general. But behind closed doors, “they will get the message: if they use nuclear weapons it will be the end of the regime”, he said. However, according to experts, it’s still unlikely that North Korea will change its position. “It is unlikely that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons by giving in to these threats,” said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.