For the first time in four decades, the United States is set to send a nuclear submarine to South Korea as part of a newly devised deterrence arrangement. Known as the “Washington Declaration,” this arrangement between the U.S. and South Korea will strengthen commitments against persistent nuclear threats from North Korea.
The White House considers this move the most significant deterrence arrangement since the Cold War. The plan includes making the U.S. presence in South Korea “more visible” with the deployment of strategic assets like nuclear ballistic submarines, which haven’t visited South Korea since the early 1980s.
— New York Post (@nypost) April 26, 2023
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, currently on an official state visit to the White House, is expected to reaffirm his country’s commitment to the United Nations Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. A 2022 Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that 71% of South Koreans support the development of their own nuclear weapons, with 67% favoring a homegrown arsenal over U.S. nuclear deployment.
The “Washington Declaration” does not involve deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea as the U.S. did during the Cold War. Instead, it focuses on temporarily deploying military assets such as nuclear-armed submarines and bombers, drawing parallels with Cold War cooperation between the U.S. and its European allies.
Alongside these new provisions, the declaration will establish a US-South Korea nuclear consultative group (NCG) to enhance nuclear-related intelligence sharing. The NCG will be a bilateral consultation mechanism focusing on nuclear and strategic planning issues. It will provide South Korea with greater insight into U.S. contingency planning.
Designed to solidify South Korean trust in the United States’ commitment and present a united front against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, these new measures harken back to Cold War-era policies. The senior White House official said, “We are seeking to ensure that by undertaking these new procedures [and] new steps that our commitment to extend deterrence is unquestioned.”
Because of their symbolic nature, nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, argued that these commitments “don’t have any military value.” However, the new steps aim to reassure the South Korean public and government of Washington’s unwavering support.
As part of the agreement, South Korea is expected to play a more significant role in responding to potential nuclear attacks, reaffirming its commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which prohibits developing nuclear weapons.
This announcement coincides with the 70th anniversary of the US-South Korea alliance. It follows the most extensive US-South Korea joint military exercises in years. The two nations are also intensifying their security coordination with Japan and participating in trilateral defense talks to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat and growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.