WASHINGTON — For the first time, U.S. officials have given South Korea a central role in strategic planning for the use of nuclear weapons in any conflict with North Korea, in return for agreeing that Seoul would not develop its own nuclear arsenal, Seoul said.
The agreement, known by both sides as the Washington Declaration, is at the center of this week’s state visit by South Korean President Yoon Hee-yeol, who will appear at the White House with President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
The new cooperation closely models how NATO countries plan to respond to a possible nuclear conflict, but the US president will retain sole authority to decide whether to use nuclear weapons. While the U.S. has never formally adopted a no-first-use policy, officials say such a decision would almost certainly be made only after North Korea itself uses nuclear weapons against South Korea.
On Wednesday morning, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “I would caution anyone against thinking that there is now a new emphasis on the centrality of nuclear weapons,” despite the wording of the new declaration. “We have a treaty commitment to the Republic of the Peninsula,” he said, using the short form of the Republic of Korea, “and we want to make sure we have as many options as possible.”
The agreement is notable for several reasons. First, it is intended to reassure the South Korean public, which pollsters have found to be unanimously in favor of an independent South Korean nuclear force. President Yoon himself publicly considered the option earlier this year, though his administration quickly backtracked on the statement. He has also raised the possibility of reintroducing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, a step his administration has said in recent weeks is no longer taking.
In 1991, under the administration of George HW Bush, the United States withdrew its last nuclear weapons from North Korea.
But the second reason it matters is a lesser-known one about the Biden administration: It tends to roll back a pledge to return to the Obama administration and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. For years, the United States has been improving its non-nuclear strike options, increasing the precision and power of conventional weapons that can hit any target in the world in about an hour.
But South Korea is seeking greater assurances of “extended deterrence,” in which the U.S. will seek a nuclear response to deter North Korea from launching a nuclear strike on South Korea — even if it could lead to North Korean attacks on U.S. cities.
South Korea is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits it from acquiring nuclear weapons. So the pledge not to make your own weapons is nothing new. But countries can withdraw from the treaty by notifying the United Nations. Only one country has done so: North Korea, in the early 1990s. Three countries that have not signed the treaty but have developed nuclear weapons: Israel, India and Pakistan.