United States President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have pledged to strengthen deterrence against North Korea, including sending nuclear-armed US submarines and other military assets to South Korea.
Biden and Yoon discussed the new agreement between the two countries, dubbed the “Washington Declaration”, in a joint news conference following their meeting in Washington, DC to mark the two countries’ 70-year alliance.
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Yoon is only the second leader, after France’s Emmanuel Macron, to be hosted in an official state visit at the White House since Biden took office in 2021, which his administration said underscored the priority Washington is giving to a key ally in the Indo-Pacific region.
Yoon said the new deterrence agreement represented an “unprecedented expansion and strengthening” of the bilateral strategy. It came as North Korea increased the pace of its weapons testing and unveiled an apparent recent breakthrough in its pursuit of solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“President Biden has reaffirmed his ironclad commitment to extended deterrence for the Republic of Korea,” Yoon said.
He added that the countries agreed to “immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of North Korea’s nuclear attack, a promise to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly and decisively using the full force of the alliance including the United States’ nuclear weapons”.
The countries will also set up a “nuclear consultative group” to share strategy and information related to North Korean threats, Yoon said. The group will discuss ways to plan and execute joint operations “that combine Korea’s state-of-the-art conventional forces with US nuclear capabilities”.
For his part, Biden said that, while the agreement will increase cooperation in the event of an attack by North Korea, he will maintain “sole authority” to use a nuclear weapon.
“The bottom line here is even closer cooperation, closer consultation, and we’re not going to be stationing nuclear weapons on the [Korean] Peninsula,” Biden said. “But we will have visits, port visits, of nuclear submarines and things like that. We are not walking away from that.”
Speaking to reporters prior to the news conference, three Biden administration senior officials told reporters on the condition of anonymity that the submarine deployments will be a significant component of a wider strategy.
The deployment of nuclear-armed submarines to the Korean Peninsula “has not happened since the early 1980s”, one senior official told reporters, explaining that they would be part of an array of “strategic assets” that would be regularly deployed to South Korea “to make our deterrence more visible”.
The deployments would include a “regular cadence” of other major assets, “including bombers or aircraft carriers”, the official said.
“We’ll strengthen our training, our exercises and simulation activities to improve the US-ROK [Republic of Korea] alliance’s approach to deterring and defending against DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], including by better integrating ROK conventional assets into our strategic planning,” the official said, referring to South and North Korea by their official acronyms.
US nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines made frequent port visits to South Korea in the late 1970s during the Cold War, a period when the US had hundreds of nuclear warheads stationed in South Korea.
In 1991, the US withdrew all of its nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. The following year, Seoul and Pyongyang signed a joint declaration pledging that neither would “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons”.
But as Pyongyang has repeatedly violated the joint declaration over the years, there has been increased support in South Korea for the US to place nuclear weapons in the country again.
A poll released on April 6 by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul found 64 percent of South Koreans supported developing nuclear weapons, with 33 percent opposed.
Meanwhile, stepped-up testing by North Korea, including the flight-testing of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time earlier this month, have further heightened concerns. The test was seen as a possible breakthrough in Pyongyang’s efforts to acquire a more powerful, harder-to-detect weapon that could target the continental US.
As part of the declaration, they said, South Korea will reaffirm its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the officials said.
The officials added that Biden’s and Yoon’s aides have been working on details of the plan for months and agreed that “occasional” and “very clear demonstrations of the strength” of US extended deterrence capabilities needed to be an essential aspect of the agreement.
One official said that steps are being taken in advance to defuse any potential tensions with Beijing over the tougher military posture.
“We are briefing the Chinese in advance and laying out very clearly our rationale for why we are taking these steps,” the official said, adding that the Biden administration is “disappointed that China has been unprepared to use its influence” on North Korea.
Speaking at the news conference, Biden — without directly naming China — said South Korea, the US and Japan are working to ensure the future of the Indo-Pacific is “free, open, prosperous and secure”.
Seoul and Washington were also working together, he added, on “promoting peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
Support for Ukraine
Besides the deterrence plan, Biden and Yoon also discussed Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration has recently praised South Korea for sending some $230m in humanitarian aid to Kyiv, but has indicated it would like to see Seoul take an even bigger role in supporting Kyiv.
On Wednesday, Biden said South Korea’s support for Ukraine shows “Russia’s flagrant, flagrant violation of international law matters to nations everywhere in the world, not just in Europe.”
Yoon’s visit came just weeks after the leak of highly classified US documents, including one that appeared to indicate that South Korea’s National Security Council “grappled” with the US in early March over a request to provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine.
Asked about the revelations in the leak, Yoon downplayed the situation, saying “various complex variables are always in play”.
“We need time to wait for the investigation results by the United States and we plan to continue to communicate on the matter,” he said.
On Tuesday, Yoon and Biden visited the Korean War Memorial — life-sized steel statues depicting US soldiers marching during the 1950-53 war against the North.
Yoon also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and joined US Vice President Kamala Harris for a tour of a NASA space facility near Washington, DC.
A state dinner is to be held at the White House on Wednesday evening.