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The Peninsula

Tasks Ahead for the Nuclear Consultative Group

Published May 16, 2023
Category: South Korea

The ROK-U.S. state visit significantly strengthened the alliance amid changes in the international order, such as the Ukrainian war and intensifying U.S.-China competition. The two countries adopted six joint statements, including the “Washington Declaration,” which is significant in expressing the U.S. commitment for extended deterrence and South Korea’s willingness to comply with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

While some evaluations have disparaged the value of the Washington Declaration for merely maintaining existing pledges, the creation of “the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG)”, the commitment to regular visibility and deployment of U.S. strategic assets such as SSBN visits to South Korean ports, and the strengthening of information sharing and joint training are all notable aspects of the declaration.

The Achievements of the Washington Declaration

North Korea’s nuclear threat is growing. Fierce competition among great powers is opening up strategic space for North Korea, which has carried out unprecedented missile provocations throughout 2022. North Korea is making its nuclear possession a fait accompli and maximizing its potential for nuclear coercion. As a result, many expected this ROK-U.S. summit to address security anxiety of the South Korean people. The Washington Declaration did so in three ways:

  • Political Solidarity of the Alliance: Various discussions on South Korea’s independent nuclear armament continued not only in South Korea but also in the United States ahead of the summit. Some argued the U.S. needs to relocate its tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula or establish a nuclear sharing system such as NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). However, South Korea’s nuclear deterrent is not a silver bullet to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, and more sophisticated calculations on national interests are needed. The Washington Declaration is meaningful in that it has potentially ended such exhausting debates and suggested a direction for the alliance to work together. It was a clear declaration that the ROK-U.S. alliance, which marks its 70th anniversary, is firmly united.
  • Strategic Credibility of Deterrence: Nuclear extended deterrence is bound to face questions about its inherent credibility. This summit was intended to increase the credibility of deterrence through the creation of the NCG for close consultation between allies. It not only holds regular meetings as a vice-ministerial/assistant secretary consultative body but also installs them as a permanent consultative group. This may help reduce crisis response time, which is considered a weak point, and reduces North Korea’s potential for miscalculation by sending immediate and cohesive deterrence messages. And, crisis stability may be improved by reducing misperceptions about others’ intentions. In the end, South Korea can participate in all different facets of deterrence, thereby increasing the credibility of deterrence against North Korea.
  • Military Integration and Effectiveness: North Korea tried to secure advantages by decoupling the ROK-U.S. alliance. Instead, the Washington Declaration tightened military linkages and plugged gaps. The entire process of information sharing, and planning, coordinating, and operating nuclear-related actions helps integrate the combined deterrent power of South Korea and the United States. This contributes to the Conventional and Nuclear Integration (CNI), which effectively integrates the operation of nuclear and conventional weapons in terms of means, and allows strategic assets including SSBN to fill the gap between the U.S. mainland and the Korean Peninsula in terms of space. Therefore, by enhancing military integration and effectiveness, it can contribute to integrated deterrence aimed at building a credible force across all domains and across the full spectrum of conflict, and with all government agencies, as well as allies and partners.

Future challenges of NCG

South Korea’s concern about U.S. extended deterrence is not just a question of whether Washington would risk New York to save Seoul.  South Korean leaders are also concerned about whether the U.S. would be reluctant to use nuclear retaliation when South Korea wants U.S. nuclear retaliation, or, on the contrary that the U.S. might take steps toward nuclear retaliation when South Korea does not want it. The devastatingly destructive power of nuclear weapons causes sensitivity in domestic politics due to the collateral damage to the Korean people. Therefore, Korea’s position should be fully reflected in the implementation of U.S. extended deterrence. The NCG is expected to be able to handle such a role.

The creation of the NCG is an important step in enhancing the execution of extended deterrence and securing the credibility of deterrence against North Korea.  It will also serve as the U.S.’s test bed for whether it will be able to maintain its existing international order and NPT regime through tailored responses to North Korea. The NCG’s future challenges include the following:

  • Collaboration with existing consultative bodies: The NCG intends to institutionalize consultation with South Korea on the operation of U.S. nuclear weapons that may affect the Korean Peninsula. It is meaningful as a starting point to ensure South Korea’s participation in the U.S. nuclear planning and operating process. However, the role of the NCG must align with the alliance’s existing consultative mechanisms, yet the structure must be different. Founded in 2015 to integrate the alliance’s deterrence efforts, the ROK-U.S. Deterrence Strategy Committee (DSC) is responsible for establishing and implementing the Tailored Deterrence Strategies (TDS), preparing alliance operational concepts and principles such as 4D, and integrating nuclear and conventional capabilities. In addition, the high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), which resumed last year, integrated all elements of national power, including diplomatic, informational, military and economic (i.e. DIME) and has developed a deterrence message as a declaration policy. Effective collaboration with these consultative bodies is imperative for the NCG.
  • Guidelines for military crisis management: The NCG will provide various kinds of information to consult with South Korea on U.S. nuclear operations. This affects all military operations throughout the Korean Peninsula both in peacetime and wartime. Since nuclear and the conventional crises do not exist separately, all crisis management should be in line with the principle of a Combined Crisis Management of Agreement (CCMOA). Therefore, in terms of military crisis management, the NCG has to cooperate with South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, and even the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Strategic Command. To this end, it will be necessary to revitalize the KIDD ad-hoc Consultation Mechanism (KCM), a crisis management dialogue agreed to at the 2016 SCM and to consider creating another military planning consultative body to link the NCG and KCM.
  • Establishment of a system for practical consultation: Regular meetings held four times a year function as peacetime consultative bodies, but more importantly, immediate consultations in times of crisis. Therefore, the size and location of a permanent NCG working-level office that will be operated at all times are important. This is because deliberated consultation cannot be made during a crisis at the level of liaison officers. Instead, it is necessary to establish a communication system that can safely exchange sensitive information and secrets between the two countries in a crisis situation. A more reliable and secure common network is required within the framework of the two countries’ strategic cybersecurity cooperation framework emphasized at this summit.
  • Information sharing and exercise: The alliance’s consultation on U.S. nuclear operations does not simply entail receiving information on nuclear weapons. In order to establish and reflect Korea’s position clearly, the NCG should be developed through comprehensive information sharing and practical exercise assuming the urgency of the actual nuclear crisis To this end, the NCG should share the following information in conjunction with institutions and units at various levels in both countries discuss nuclear operation strategies with the Ministry of National Defense and Department of Defense, target information, assets allocation and strike measures with both Joint Chiefs of Staff, operational plans and concepts with U.S. STRATCOM and timing and crisis management measures with U.S. Forces Korea.

The decision to create the NCG is a significant achievement. However, the NCG cannot solve every problem. To avoid remaining only in formal consultations, implementation is more important than promises, and there are many challenges that need to be addressed in the future. It is necessary to move beyond consultation and develop “joint guidelines for the alliance’s nuclear operations” in the Korean Peninsula. Thus far, North Korea’s nuclear threat has increased much faster than anticipated. Nuclear deterrence and stability on the Korean Peninsula will be achieved when North Korea recognizes that the ROK-U.S. alliance cannot be decoupled and realizes that no strategic gap is available to them.

The Korean people remember how stubbornly President Syngman Rhee persuaded the U.S. 70 years ago to form the alliance. Stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula have been maintained for 70 years because of the Korea-U.S. mutual defense treaty, which was born out of his unwavering conviction. Moving forward, Korea’s expectations toward the United States will never diminish. The Washington Declaration of 2023, amid North Korean nuclear threats, embodies the expectation, promise, and blueprint of the two countries. It is crucial to plan this in more detail and implement it decisively.

Hanbyeol Sohn is an associate professor in the Department of Military Strategy at the Korea National Defense University (KNDU) and Director, Center for Military Strategy in the Research Institute for National Security Affairs (RINSA).

The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz from White House flickr photostream.

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