An analysis of the expansion of nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea

Strategic Council Online—Opinion: The division of the Korean Peninsula after the end of World War II and the surrender of Japan in the 38-degree orbit was considered vital and strategic for the two superpowers of the bipolar world, but its endless costs and hardships, and its profound effects on the East Asian region still remain. Hossein Sayyahi—Researcher of international politics

With the passage of nearly seventy years, the total Korean War and a range of numerous crises paint an irreconcilable face of the two countries in the north and south of the Korean peninsula. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China, and the gradual weakening of the United States have also complicated the situation. Pyongyang has put Seoul on the brink of a critical security threat by acquiring nuclear weapons. Even so, both Washington and Seoul have concluded that joint naval exercises declared commitments and previous deterrence programs are no longer effective against North Korea and will not persuade South Korean domestic minds. History has proven that with crises and confrontations such as the Korean War (1953-1950), the Pablo warship crisis (1968), and the nuclear crisis that has continued since 1993 until now, one cannot be pleased about improving relations. In this way, the most outstanding possible achievement will be maintaining stability and preventing war on the Korean Peninsula.

It should be noted that in achieving this goal, the past methods are no longer effective. Examining the strategies of the past presidents of the United States in the face of North Korea confirms this claim. George Bush Senior’s codified policy of engagement, which led to the Basic Agreement in 1991 and the Joint Declaration on Nuclear Disarmament in 1993, failed to succeed, and the North Korean nuclear crisis reignited. Clinton’s engagement policy also led to establishing an agreed framework in 1994, which, despite initial progress, advanced slowly and eventually reached a stalemate. But George Bush Junior took the other route and maximized tensions by criticizing Clinton’s engagement policy, with an approach centered on evil. In the following years, the six-party dialogue could not untie the knot created. Obama’s strategic patience policy of maintaining pressure and opening the door to negotiations, Trump’s maximum pressure strategy, and his historic meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore did not lead the way either.

The actions mentioned by the US presidents coincided with the first nuclear crisis in 1993-94 and the first nuclear test in 2006, the second in 2009, and the third, fourth, and fifth tests between 2013 and 2017. Statistics show that the more joint exercises and punitive measures against North Korea increase, the more Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and countermeasures will increase. In this way, public opinion within South Korea has the right to worry about their security and, simultaneously, be skeptical about the commitments of the United States.

Thus, with the increase of these concerns, the need to create a new initiative was felt more than ever. As mentioned, Washington opposes any move of Seoul toward nuclearization. However, the meeting of the two countries presidents in accordance with the 70th anniversary of the unification of the Republic of Korea and the United States led to the signing of six resolutions, among which the Washington Declaration is important due to the adoption of new nuclear initiatives.

In the Washington Declaration, Biden and Yeon Seok Yeol emphasized creating a new nuclear organization. Such an organization, which is not dissimilar to NATO’s Joint Nuclear Management Center, will cause South Korea to be included in the regional nuclear power mechanism. Also, preparation and coordination for sending immediate deterrence messages and responses in the shortest possible time will be increased, and the preparation of consultation between Seoul and Washington will increase in times of crisis.

Although such a broad deterrence still cannot effectively prevent Pyongyang’s violent actions, it will reduce the risk of activities based on miscalculations. In the Washington Declaration, South Korea also emphasized implementing as many joint programs as possible in the future and supporting nuclear operations. The two sides agree on increasing training activities, especially in using nuclear deterrence. In addition, the United States is trying to put on the agenda its strategic assets, including the increase of the military and the presence and visits of nuclear submarines to ports that have had no precedence since 1981.

According to polls, 70 percent of South Koreans support the indigenous nuclear program, and it is believed that the items mentioned in the Washington Declaration can reduce their concerns to some extent. On the other hand, Biden announced that any probable nuclear attack by North Korea against the southern neighbor would be met with a quick, clear, and decisive response.

However, declarations such as the Washington Declaration and other deterrence measures cannot permanently change North Korea’s behavior. Punitive programs, military training, exercises, and joint maneuvers between Seoul and Washington have always been accompanied by a strong response from Pyongyang. The new nuclear initiative between the two allies in East Asia clearly shows that the US program in East Asia is still based on deterrence, maintaining stability, and establishing regional balance.

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