During the arrival ceremony for his state visit, President Yoon Suk Yeol rightly observed the ROK-U.S. alliance is not a transactional relationship but an alliance of values or, as he later remarked, an everlasting partnership. However, effusive language aside, it’s a partnership that includes tradeoffs. And such tradeoffs were evident in the Washington Declaration.
While both sides presaged the declaration in the lead up to the visit by saying extended deterrence would be a central focus of discussion and result in a separate document, the declaration itself makes clear the discussion was as much about bolstering assurances as strengthening deterrence. And those assurances went both ways; again, tradeoffs.
The declaration’s structure and content also reveal just how markedly deterrence has crowded out diplomacy in terms of the alliance’s priorities.
No More Doubts & No (ROK) Nukes
The declaration states that South Korea “has full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitments and recognizes the importance, necessity, and benefit of its enduring reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.” After months of seemingly endless discussion regarding Seoul’s doubts about the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrence commitment – which caused considerable frustration and displeasure among U.S. officials in Washington – South Korea assured that such doubts had been put to rest; at least on paper and for now.
Notably, the ROK’s recognition of an enduring reliance on the “U.S. nuclear deterrent” left unspoken another point, namely, Seoul’s assurance that it would not pursue its own indigenous nuclear deterrent. The latter possibility has been the subject of much commentary due to Yoon and other South Korean officials previously floating the idea as well as various conservative South Korean politicians’ irresponsible and populist invocation of public surveys in support of South Korea’s own nuclear armament.
But the unspoken part was made explicit later in the declaration when President Yoon reaffirmed the ROK’s longstanding commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the U.S.-ROK agreement on peaceful civilian and commercial use of nuclear energy. The contrast was implied: whereas Pyongyang flouts NPT, of which it was once a member, Seoul remains a steadfast adherent to nonproliferation and nuclear responsibility.
Yet in providing such assurances, Seoul received some of its own.
Nuclear Consultative Group
The most noted assurance, of course, was the establishment of a new Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) to “strengthen extended deterrence, discuss nuclear and strategic planning, and manage the threat to the nonproliferation regime posed by” North Korea; in effect, the creation of an alliance nuclear planning group. While walking back any discussion of ROK nuclear armament or redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the ROK, the Yoon administration has consistently urged greater consultation surrounding U.S. nuclear decision-making. The NCG is the result.
Still, how exactly the NCG will manage the threat from North Korea remains to be seen. Realistically, it appears more geared to tightening information sharing and cooperative decision-making between Washington and Seoul surrounding U.S. nuclear deployments and potential employment on and around the Korean Peninsula. Closer cooperation on this front and clear signaling to that effect could, theoretically speaking, have a deterrent effect all its own.
Nevertheless, the organizational structure and institutionalization of the NCG is yet to be determined. Furthermore, it remains unclear how it will differ from or add to existing consultative mechanisms, including the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultative Group (EDSCG), which the Washington Declaration also notes will be strengthened to help the alliance defend against potential attacks and nuclear use as well as jointly plan for and execute combined operations in contingencies.
Yet questions remain. Will greater info sharing and cooperatative decision-making suffice to settle Seoul’s doubts or might closer cooperation within the NCG simply sharpen Seoul’s awareness of the stark limits beyond which Washington is unwilling to go? Alternatively, might greater information sharpen awareness of just what nuclear employment would look like and reduce Seoul’s appetite for it? In either case, deeper consultation may reveal certain truths more lucidly and further reinforce the fundamental degree to which certain decisions that are critical to South Korea’s own national security are not entirely in its own hands and push it to seek greater strategic autonomy. Depending on electoral outcomes in both countries, such fissures might be difficult to tamp down.
As I observed elsewhere, thus far in the alliance, the creation of deeper consultative mechanisms to strengthen extended deterrence has gotten us to the point of needing more consultative mechanisms to further strengthen extended deterrence. The NCG is surely the highest and deepest level yet of such consultation, yet that means consultation may be reaching its limits. How will the alliance navigate running up against them?
Nuclear-Conventional Integration & ROK STRATCOM
A little noticed but important element of the Washington Declaration was the alliance’s move to tighten nuclear and conventional operations between Washington and Seoul. Not only does Seoul already bear the overwhelming conventional burden in the alliance’s deterrence strategy, its 3K Defense System is predicated on leveraging advanced conventional means to achieve non-nuclear strategic deterrence.
However, consistent with long-term patterns in the alliance, there has been lingering concern on the U.S. side regarding just how those ROK capabilities fit within the alliance’s deterrence and defense structure and strategy and, more specifically, how the ROK’s Strategic Command (STRATCOM) – to be established in 2024 and under which the 3K Defense System will be housed – will (or will not) align with the alliance’s combined command structure. In this context, high-level U.S. defense officials have informally observed that the ROK’s STRATCOM, both as a concept and command, was up for grabs.
The Washington Declaration appears to define it and tighten U.S. nuclear and ROK conventional integration more clearly. The alliance, it notes, “will work to enable joint execution and planning for ROK conventional support to U.S. nuclear operations.” Further, President Yoon affirmed that the ROK will apply the full range of its capabilities to the combined defense posture, including “working in lockstep with the United States to closely connect the capabilities and planning activities of the new ROK Strategic Command and the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command.”
Since the alliance’s inception, there has been a balancing act between U.S. restraints and the ROK’s own autonomous space. Increased ROK rhetoric about preemption in the face of North Korea’s advancing capabilities, understandable though it is, has raised concerns. The declaration’s language reflects that but may also indicate a maturation of how the alliance navigates this enduring pattern in the relationship. Given North Korea’s advancements and the alliance’s plans to move toward a future, ROK-led CFC it is even more imperative it do so.
Dialogue & Diplomacy…. Where to?
Only in the final sentence of the declaration did President Biden and Yoon turn to diplomacy toward North Korea. Having laid down all the previous commitments to enhance consultation, strengthen extended deterrence, and tighten alliance operations did the two leaders nod to engagement with Pyongyang.
Admittedly, North Korea has been silent on the uptake when it comes to repeated U.S. and ROK offers to pursue dialogue and diplomacy “without preconditions.” Nonetheless, the curt mention of diplomacy should come as no surprise. It is consistent with Yoon’s own oft-stated imperative to achieve “peace through the superiority of overwhelming forces and not a false peace based on the goodwill of the other side.” One must wonder, however, if the superiority of overwhelming force is realistic and thus effective.
Clint Work is a Fellow and Director of Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from the White House Twitter account.