Apr 26, 2023 - World

U.S. moves to reassure South Korea of protection against nuclear attack

President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol last year in Seoul. Photo: Jeon Heon-Kyun/Pool via Getty Images

President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will sign a declaration on nuclear coordination during Yoon's visit to Washington this week in response to "provocations" from North Korea, senior U.S. officials briefed reporters.

Why it matters: North Korea's nuclear breakthroughs and unprecedented increase in missile testing have inflamed debate in South Korea about whether the country can still entrust its security to its nuclear-armed ally in Washington. In the new "Washington Declaration," Biden will announce new measures to coordinate with Seoul and deter Pyongyang, while Yoon will re-commit to non-proliferation.

  • One announcement that's likely to spur outrage from North Korea is the U.S. commitment to the "regular deployment of strategic assets" in the region, including the first "visit" of a nuclear ballistic missile submarine to South Korea since the 1980s, a senior official said. There will also be a "regular cadence" of "visits" from bomber aircraft, aircraft carriers and other such assets.
  • A new U.S.-South Korea "nuclear consultative group" will focus on "nuclear and strategic planning issues" and give the South Korean side "new insights" into how the U.S. plans for scenarios like a possible nuclear exchange, the senior official said.
  • That information-sharing structure is based on steps the U.S. took to reassure European allies who feared a potential Soviet strike during the Cold War.

Yes, but: The U.S. has no intention of basing any nuclear weapons, including lower-yield tactical weapons, on the Korean Peninsula, the officials said. The U.S. once had nuclear weapons in South Korea but withdrew them in 1991.

Between the lines: Recent polls have found that most South Koreans support obtaining their own nuclear weapons, and doubt that the U.S. would use its nukes to defend its East Asian ally.

  • The Biden administration has previously vowed to destroy the North Korean regime if it uses a nuke. However, the decision on whether to press the nuclear button would be made in Washington, not Seoul.
  • The new steps are designed in part to "send a strong and reassuringly determined message" to the people of South Korea and the "broader region," an official said. Japan will also take part in the enhanced "crisis communications" planning envisioned in the declaration.

The U.S. briefed China ahead of the announcements, an official told reporters.

  • Asked about the fact that Beijing will likely object to the planned rotations of nuclear assets to the region, a senior official noted that China had been unwilling to use its influence in Pyongyang to get the regime to stop its "provocations."

What to watch: The loudest objections will likely come from Pyongyang.

  • North Korea tested a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time earlier this month and is preparing to launch its first spy satellite — potentially while Yoon is in Washington.
  • A senior official did not directly answer a question from Axios about whether the administration is bracing for a North Korean launch or other responses this week.

Go deeper: New nuclear arms race could spin out of control

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