South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands at summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Nov. 13, 2022. [Photo by Yonhap]
South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden will reportedly adopt a separate special document on strengthening U.S. extended deterrence commitment to South Korea during their summit on Wednesday local time.
The plan is to specify in the joint document that if North Korea launches a nuclear attack on South Korea, the U.S. will respond with nuclear weapons in retaliation. The two countries are also coordinating ways to enhance their joint planning and implementation capabilities against the North’s growing nuclear arsenal by establishing a standing ministerial-level consultative body. This means that the two countries are aiming to go beyond the principle of extended deterrence, which has been on a theoretical level, and promote “Korean-style nuclear sharing” comparable to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-style nuclear sharing. If it becomes a reality, it could be a game changer to prevent misjudgment from North Korea, which is obsessed with nuclear weapons.
North Korea has launched nine ballistic missiles this year and is in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the U.S. mainland. In this situation, it is urgent for South Korea to secure a reliable deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The U.S, however, has only stated so far that “any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea will be the end of the reclusive Kim Jong Un regime in Pyongyang.”
The U.S. Department of Defense said on April 19 that it “really means to retaliate with nuclear power should North Korea launch a nuclear attack,” but such rhetoric is not enough to ease anxiety among the Korean people who will live with North Korea’s nuclear weapons hanging over their heads.
This is why President Yoon said in a recent interview with Reuters that “In terms of responding to a powerful nuclear attack, I think stronger measures than what NATO has should be prepared.” The South Korean government believes that more tangible U.S. extended deterrence is needed to ease public anxiety and remove calls in the country for developing its own nuclear weapons.
The key to NATO-style nuclear sharing is to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in five European countries and coordinate strategies through the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). Bringing tactical nuclear weapons back to South Korea, however, is not easy as it will undermine the Korea-U.S. alliance, violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and trigger international sanctions.
If it is truly difficult to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, the two leaders during the summit should make clear their strong determination to deter North Korea’s nuclear provocation by publicly vowing to upgrade U.S. extended deterrence commitment to South Korea to the NATO level and strongly warn of nuclear retaliation against the communist state’s nuclear action. Toward this end, there should be a guarantee of the South Korean government’s participation in the nuclear decision-making process, including the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to South Korea. Issues such as nuclear fuel reprocessing and enrichment and nuclear-powered submarines should also be put on the summit agenda to allow South Korea to secure potential nuclear capabilities.
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