South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol held a summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on Wednesday. It was the centerpiece of the first state visit by a South Korean president to the United States since Lee Myung-bak’s in 2011.
Amid the growing nuclear threats from North Korea, Yoon and Biden reaffirmed the strengthening of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, which marks its 70th anniversary this year.
“Our two countries have agreed to immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of North Korea’s nuclear attack and promised to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly, and decisively using the full force of the alliance including the United States’ nuclear weapons,” Yoon said during the joint press conference with Biden.
Biden emphasized that “extended deterrence” and “the nuclear deterrent… are particularly important in the face of the DPRK’s increased threats.” (DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)
“At the same time,” he added, “we continue to seek serious and substantial diplomatic breakthroughs with the DPRK to bolster stability on the Peninsula, reduce the threat of proliferation, and address our humanitarian and human rights concerns for the people of the DPRK.”
Dialogue with North Korea has stalled out since then-U.S. President Donald Trump walked out of the 2019 summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi with no deal. Since then, North Korea has accelerated its efforts to develop new nuclear weapon programs so as to pressure the United States to make concessions first.
Since taking office in May 2022, Yoon has repeatedly emphasized reinvigorating South Korea-U.S. joint military drills as an effective means to respond to the growing aggression of North Korea. Due to his relatively hawkish stance, Pyongyang completely ruled out any engagement with the Yoon administration last year.
The Washington Declaration
On the day of the South Korea-U.S. summit meeting, Yoon and Biden adopted a new joint statement called the “Washington Declaration.” In the Declaration, the two leaders reiterated their mutual trust in the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea, alongside Seoul’s pledge and recommitment to its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
“President Biden reaffirmed that the United States’ commitment to the ROK and the Korean people is enduring and ironclad, and that any nuclear attack by the DPRK against the ROK will be met with a swift, overwhelming and decisive response,” the Declaration said. (ROK is an acronym of South Korea’s official name: the Republic of Korea.)
Following the North’s incessant missile launches and its steadfast commitment to develop nuclear programs, the United States’ extended deterrence – the so-called nuclear umbrella – is increasingly called into question. Amid those concerns, South Koreans now support their country developing its own nuclear weapons, even while maintaining their support of the U.S. defense commitment.
To check the growing calls for South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons, Yoon and Biden announced the establishment of “Nuclear Consultative Group” to show more concrete and substantive moves “to operate the new extended deterrence system.”
According to the White House, the Nuclear Consultative Group will function to “discuss how to plan for nuclear contingencies and cooperate on the Alliance’s approach to nuclear deterrence” and strengthen extended deterrence to manage the growing nuclear threats of North Korea. It will be convened at the assistant secretary level and will materialize the alliance’s joint response to the North Korean nuclear threats with the options of U.S. nuclear weapons.
Under the Washington Declaration, the United States will also “further enhance the regular visibility of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula,” with the upcoming visit by a U.S. nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea as the prime example. It will be the first time in over 40 years that a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine has docked in South Korea.
Unlike NATO’s nuclear sharing, however, no U.S. nuclear assets will be permanently stationed on the Korean Peninsula – which is the main reason a majority of South Koreans support indigenous nuclear weapons development. Many South Koreans believe that the absence of nuclear weapons in their country fundamentally allows the unabated nuclear threats of North Korea. To tackle the North’s outright nuclear threats, most South Koreans – three-quarters, according to one recent poll – have concluded that developing South Korea’s own nuclear weapons is the last remaining effective measure to contain the North’s nuclear development and missile launches.
Washington has now assured Seoul that it will regularly deploy its strategic assets in the region, but it is questionable whether such a move can alleviate the snowballing eagerness of South Koreans to have nuclear weapons.
Controversies at Home
In his first state visit to Washington, Yoon was warmly welcomed for his unconditional support of the United States.
Even after leaked documents from the U.S. Defense Department showed evidence of the U.S. wiretapping South Korea to gather information, Yoon reiterated that “the ironclad trust” between the allies was not affected.
“I believe that this matter is no reason to shake the ironclad trust that supports the U.S.-South Korea alliance, because it is based on shared values like freedom,” Yoon said in in an interview with NBC News on Monday.
Yoon’s response to the leaked documents brought criticism from the main opposition party and the public. Critics said the Yoon administration should have at least demanded that Washington prevent future incidents, as this was not the first time the United States eavesdropped on Seoul to gather intelligence information. Instead, Seoul voluntarily defended Washington’s motivation for spying on its ally. As a result, Yoon’s already low approval rating – which has been hovering between 30 and 35 percent – dropped slightly this week.
Washington repeatedly expressed gratitude toward Yoon’s efforts to mend ties with Japan. In March, Yoon held a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in Tokyo. The breakthrough came shortly after his foreign minister announced a plan to bypass the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling that Japanese corporations must compensate the Korean victims who were forced into labor during World War II.
South Koreans denounced Yoon’s unilateral friendly gesture toward Tokyo. The Yoon administration confidently stated that Tokyo will make corresponding measures to build a future-oriented relationship, as the two countries are the key actors supporting the rules-based order led by the United States in the region. However, Tokyo has made no changes to its imperialism-based view on the historical disputes. On the contrary, Japan recently repeated its claim that South Korea has illegally occupied Dokdo Island – a position that is unacceptable to South Koreans.
Yoon’s latest interview with the Washington Post further fueled the outcry from South Koreans, due to his tone-deaf remarks over the lingering historical disputes with Japan.
“I can’t accept the notion that because of what happened 100 years ago, something is absolutely impossible [to do] and that they [Japanese] must kneel [for forgiveness] because of our history 100 years ago. And this is an issue that requires decision. … In terms of persuasion, I believe I did my best,” Yoon told the Washington Post.
South Koreans vehemently responded to Yoon’s remarks. As the criticism snowballed, Yoon’s office and the ruling People Power Party targeted the reporter, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, for allegedly misinterpreting Yoon’s remarks – a response that recalled the administration’s handling of the hot mic scandal during his visit to New York in September 2022. In the past year, accusing the media and reporters of reporting fake news over Yoon has been a routine of the presidential office and PPP whenever Yoon has made some controversial remarks.
Lee said she received insulting messages from right-wing supporters of Yoon after the presidential office and the PPP argued that his remarks had been mistranslated. However, after she released a full transcript of Yoon’s controversial remarks – which proved the accuracy of her translation – the authorities in Seoul stepped back from their initial attempt to frame her as a “fake news” reporter.
U.S. experts view the South Korea-U.S. summit as successful. South Koreans’ growing demand for nuclear weapons has been a headache to Washington, and Yoon pledged to commit to the NPT without seeking nuclear acquisition. However, Yoon’s considerably low approval ratings and his five-year single term mean his pledges are of dubious long-term value.
North Korea will likely launch its first military reconnaissance satellite in the coming weeks. Considering the North’s unwavering willingness to become a recognized nuclear power that can pose a direct threat to the security of the United States, South Koreans’ demand to have nuclear weapons on the South’s soil will unlikely disappear. Under the current circumstances, only deploying U.S. nuclear strategic assets on the South’s soil can soothe South Koreans’ eagerness to have their own nuclear weapons.
In this context, all eyes will be on the new Nuclear Consultative Group. If it fails to come up with more concrete and substantive measures to respond to the North’s nuclear threats, South Koreans’ eagerness for nuclear weapons could grow even further.