On September 16, the U.S. and South Korea Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) meeting was held at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. It was the first such meeting in four years and eight months. With South Korean society’s increasing demand for more active measures to counter the North Korean nuclear threat, attention has been focused on the joint statement adopted by South Korea and the U.S.
In this statement, South Korea and the United States affirmed the commitment of both sides “to use all available levers — including diplomatic, informational, military, and economic tools — to strengthen and reinforce the U.S. security commitment to the ROK [South Korea] and strengthen deterrence against DPRK [North Korean] aggression, and more broadly counter the DPRK threat.” The United States reaffirmed its “ironclad and unwavering commitment” to provide extended deterrence to South Korea using all its military capabilities, “including nuclear, conventional, missile defense, and advanced non-nuclear capabilities,” and they reaffirmed that a North Korean nuclear test will face “a strong and resolute whole-of-government response.”
Korean society generally welcomed this joint statement, but it is regrettable that South Korea and the U.S. reached an agreement in principle without discussing specific implementation plans. There are three points that need to be developed in the working-level EDSCG meetings, scheduled for the first half of 2023, in order to resolve the fundamental insecurity presented by the North Korean nuclear threat. In this article, I would like to introduce the origins of the insecurity related to the North Korean nuclear threat and provide four practical points for strengthening the current South Korea-U.S. customized deterrence strategy.
The origins of insecurity in South Korean society vis-a-vis the North Korean nuclear threat can be summarized into two main categories. First, U.S. deterrence strategies greatly differ between NATO and the Korean Peninsula. In the 1960s, NATO’s non-nuclear weapon states gave up independent nuclear armament as a condition of accepting the NPT system to counter the Soviet Union’s nuclear threat, and instead agreed to share U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. When the U.S. attempted to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from NATO member states in 1999 and 2010, Germany and other non-nuclear members of NATO strongly opposed it.
By contrast, in the early 1990s, when the United States decided to unilaterally withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons deployed on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean government’s inaction seriously undermined its nuclear deterrence against North Korea. Based on the assertion that the tremendous destructive power of nuclear weapons is a source of deterrence, the unilateral withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons deployed on the Korean Peninsula may have delivered a false signal to the North Korean leader about nuclear development and advancement.
The second destabilizing factor is the issue of the U.S. commitment to provide extended deterrence. On January 26, 55 Democrats in the United States sent a letter to the White House asking President Joe Biden to adopt a “no first use” policy in the Nuclear Posture Report (NPR), which will be revised this year. The U.S. maintaining strategic ambiguity in its nuclear strategy has played an essential role since the Cold War in deterring potential adversaries, such as Russia, from using nuclear weapons. If the Biden administration adopts a “no first use” policy, it could provide room for misjudgment regarding the use of nuclear weapons for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Although there has no observable movement so far toward adopting a “no first use” policy, the request by ruling party senators shocked allies, who cannot shake off their deep concerns about this issue.
During the presidential campaign, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol promised the people that even without a NATO-style nuclear sharing system, his administration would dramatically strengthen the current South Korea-U.S. customized deterrence strategy to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In the past, the U.S. deterrence strategy on the Korean Peninsula has shown a pattern of incremental strengthening whenever North Korea conducts a nuclear test. With North Korea ready to conduct a seventh nuclear test at anytime, it is only natural that public attention is focused on the fact that South Korea and the United States met again after four years and eight months to adopt a joint statement on deterrence. However, in order to resolve public anxiety about the North Korean nuclear threat, the following three concrete action plans should be discussed at the upcoming EDSCG working-level meeting.
First, with respect to nuclear operation planning, the United States conducts regular consultations every year through a standing organization called the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), which plans nuclear operation with NATO countries. It has a structure that fully reflects the will of the allies, as it adopts a unanimous system of decision-making. On the other hand, the EDSCG of the South Korea-U.S. Tailored Deterrence Strategy (TDS) is a non-permanent body that is convened upon request and has a structure in which regular consultations on nuclear operation are not guaranteed. Therefore, it is urgent for South Korea and the U.S. to establish a permanent body to jointly participate in and discuss nuclear operation planning.
Second, in terms of force deployment, the United States positions about 100 non-strategic nuclear weapons in five NATO member states so that NATO countries can respond immediately in case of emergency. It also conducts onboard training every year to maintain its ability to enable an immediate response. On the other hand, in the case of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, delivering an immediate response is difficult because reactions are based on deploying strategic assets, according to the South Korea-U.S. TDS. Above all, South Koreans are deeply concerned that U.S. nuclear force strategy is being controlled by the United States’ unilateral decision-making process, without sufficient consultation. For example, when the U.S. deploys strategic assets such as the F-35A fifth-generation fighter to combined exercises and the Ronald Reagan carrier strike group used to deter North Korea’s seventh nuclear test, South Korea receives notice only at the last minute. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare an institutional mechanism for South Korea and the U.S. to put their heads together and closely discuss the process and timing of strategic asset development.
Third, training and exercises on nuclear operation should be strengthened. NATO countries conduct field training exercises (FTX) and practice every year to enable immediate nuclear operations. On the other hand, the South Korea-U.S. TDS relies on tabletop exercises (TTX) without actual practice – and even this has not been implemented recently, which is a problem that has led to many doubts as to whether current preparations will contribute to an actual increase in deterrence. The agreement to resume the suspended TTX in this joint statement is a step forward, but actual field training exercises (FTX) should be maintained in order to preserve a substantial response posture.
In particular, one of the tasks to be solved in the future is the issue of negotiating for the South Korean military to participate in the “Global Thunder” and “Global Lightening” exercises, which are conducted exclusively by the United States.
In conclusion, the EDSCG, which South Korea and the United States resumed after nearly five years, re-emphasized the principle of fulfilling the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence, and agreed on the principle of continuing working-level meetings to strengthen the TDS. In this respect, the EDSCG can be evaluated as having contributed somewhat to resolving the security instability related to the North Korean nuclear threat. However, in order to substantially increase the deterrence of North Korea on the Korean peninsula, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration will need to devise practical measures to enhance the “Three Cs” – capability, credibility, and communication – which will help play a role in practical deterrence through more thorough preparation and response tactics.
The article was originally published on Korea on Point by the Sejong Institute and is republished with permission.