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US – South Korea Nuclear Weapons Deal

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Washington has agreed to send nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea on a regular basis and to include Seoul in its nuclear planning operations.

In exchange, South Korea agreed not to develop its own nuclear weapons.

According to US President Joe Biden, the Washington Declaration will strengthen allies’ cooperation in deterring a North Korean attack.

Concerns about North Korea’s nuclear threat have grown on both sides. Pyongyang is developing tactical nuclear weapons aimed at South Korea, as well as long-range weapons capable of reaching the US mainland.

The United States already has a treaty obligation to defend South Korea and has previously stated that nuclear weapons would be used if necessary. However, some South Koreans have begun to question that commitment and have called for the country to pursue its own nuclear programme.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was in Washington for a state visit, said the Washington Declaration represented a “unprecedented” commitment by the US to strengthen defence, deter attacks, and protect US allies through the use of nuclear weapons.

According to a senior administration official, the new agreement is the result of negotiations that lasted several months.

The US will make its defence commitments more visible under the new agreement by sending a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in 40 years, along with other strategic assets such as nuclear-capable bombers.

In addition, the two sides will form a Nuclear Consultative Group to discuss nuclear planning issues.

Politicians in Seoul have long urged Washington to include them in discussions about how and when to use nuclear weapons against North Korea.

South Koreans have grown wary of being kept in the dark about what would trigger Mr Biden to press the nuclear button on their behalf as North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has grown in size and sophistication.

On April 26, 2023, US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hold a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. (Image by: AFP)

Fear that Washington will abandon Seoul’s actions have prompted calls for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons.

However, in January, Mr Yoon alarmed policymakers in Washington by becoming the first South Korean president in decades to reintroduce this idea.

It became clear to the US that reassuring words and gestures would no longer suffice, and that if it was to deter South Korea from developing its own nuclear weapons, it would have to offer something concrete.

Mr Yoon had also stated that he expected to return home having made “tangible” progress.

According to Duyeon Kim of the Centre for a New American Security, South Korea’s participation in nuclear planning is a “big win.”

“Until now, tabletop exercises would have ended before Washington’s decision to use nuclear weapons,” Ms Kim explained.

“The US had considered such information to be too classified to share, but given the types of nuclear weapons North Korea is producing, it is critical to practise and train for this scenario.”

This new Nuclear Consultative Group checks the box, providing the increased involvement sought by the South Korean government. The bigger question is whether it will allay the public’s fears.

It does not commit the United States to using nuclear weapons to defend South Korea if North Korea attacks.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, stated on Wednesday that “a nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.”

In exchange, the US has demanded that South Korea remain a non-nuclear state and a staunch supporter of nuclear non-proliferation. The US sees preventing South Korea from going nuclear as critical, fearing that if it fails, other countries will follow suit.

These US commitments, however, are unlikely to fully satisfy an influential and increasingly vocal group of academics, scientists, and members of South Korea’s ruling party who have been advocating for Seoul to arm itself.

Dr. Cheong Seong-chang, a leading proponent of South Korean nuclearization, stated that while the declaration had many positive aspects, it was “extremely regrettable that South Korea had openly given up its right to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT],” adding that this had “further strengthened our nuclear shackles.”

President Biden stated that the US would keep working to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. According to Washington, Pyongyang has repeatedly refused to meet without preconditions.

The United States hopes to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared the country’s nuclear status “irreversible” last year.

According to some experts, it is now more appropriate to discuss arms control rather than denuclearization.

Info source – BBC

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