WASHINGTON — The United States will for the first time give South Korea a central role in strategic planning for the use of nuclear weapons in any conflict with North Korea in exchange for an agreement that Seoul will not pursue its own nuclear arsenal, US officials said .
The agreement, which the two sides are calling the Washington Declaration, is at the center of South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol’s state visit this week, who will appear at the White House with President Biden on Wednesday.
The new cooperation is modeled closely on how NATO countries plan for a potential nuclear conflict, but the US president retains exclusive authority to decide whether to use a nuclear weapon. While the United States has never formally adopted a “no first use” policy, officials said such a decision would almost certainly come after the North itself used a nuclear weapon against South Korea.
On Wednesday morning, John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “I would caution anyone not to think there is a new focus on the central role of nuclear weapons,” despite the wording of the new statement. “We have treaty obligations with the Peninsula Republic,” he said, using the abbreviation for the Republic of Korea, and “we want to make sure we have as many options as possible.”
The agreement is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is intended to provide assurance to the South Korean public, where pollsters have found consistent majorities in favor of building an independent South Korean nuclear force. President Yoon himself openly pondered that option early this year, although his government quickly withdrew the statement. He also raised the possibility of reintroducing US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, a move his administration has said in recent weeks it no longer pursues.
The United States withdrew its last nuclear weapons from Korea in 1991, under the George HW Bush administration.
But the second reason it’s important is one that the Biden administration says little about: It leans toward reversing the commitment, going back to the Obama administration, to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defense strategy. For years, the United States has been improving its non-nuclear strike options and improving the precision and power of conventional weapons, which can reach any target in the world in about an hour.
But the South is looking for more assurance of “prolonged deterrence,” the concept that the United States will try to deter a North Korean nuclear attack on the South with a nuclear response — even if that means a North Korean strike. on an American city.
South Korea has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits it from acquiring nuclear weapons. The commitment not to build your own weapons is therefore not new. But nations can withdraw from the treaty simply by notifying the United Nations. Only one country has done that: North Korea, in the early 1990s. Three countries have not signed the treaty and have developed nuclear weapons: Israel, India and Pakistan.