What the new S. Korea-US Nuclear Consultative Group will look like

Posted on : 2023-04-27 16:43 KST Modified on : 2023-04-27 16:43 KST
While a compromise between the US and South Korea, the group represents a first step toward the institutionalization of extended deterrence
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea shakes hands with US President Joe Biden at a welcome ceremony held at the White House on April 26 (local time). (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea shakes hands with US President Joe Biden at a welcome ceremony held at the White House on April 26 (local time). (Yonhap)

The leaders of South Korea and the US have released the Washington Declaration, which strengthens the US’ commitment to extended deterrence, and agreed to set up the Nuclear Consultative Group.

The Nuclear Consultative Group represents a compromise between the Korean government, which had wanted nuclear sharing, and the US government, which opposed that idea. While the group will give the two countries a framework for discussing the use of nuclear weapons, it doesn’t appear to make any fundamental changes to the decision-making structure.

A senior official in the US government said Wednesday that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden would announce the establishment of the Nuclear Consultative Group to strengthen extended deterrence during their summit.

Extended deterrence refers to the US’ commitment to retaliate with nuclear weapons, missile defense capabilities and conventional weapons if an allied country suffers a nuclear attack.

Yoon said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo in January that joint planning and joint training of nuclear forces could be a way of responding to the heightened threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

“That would basically be just as effective as nuclear sharing,” Yoon said at the time, calling the plan “Korean-style nuclear sharing.”

Amid North Korea’s continuing shows of force, which include nuclear weapon and missile tests, the Yoon administration, which has pushed for a stronger alliance with the US, called on the US to take institutional steps to bolster extended deterrence.

The Korean government’s position has been that the US government should share information about nuclear weapons and allow Seoul to take part in nuclear weapon operations from the planning stage to implementation.

Currently, the decision about whether to use nuclear weapons in a crisis on the Korean Peninsula would be made by the US, and there are no procedures or systems in place to involve the Korean government in that decision.

But the US has remained opposed to the idea of “nuclear sharing” with South Korea. Under US nuclear strategy, the American president has sole, exclusive and final authority for the use of nuclear weapons.

The compromise the two countries reached is to set up a consultative group that will facilitate more deliberations about nuclear weapons. The NCG’s biggest advantage is that it will be ongoing, which means issues can be discussed more rapidly than the two countries’ current deliberative bodies. It also represents the first step toward institutionalizing extended deterrence.

The current deliberative bodies aren’t designed to always be in communication. The Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, which is attended by diplomats and security officials at the bureau chief and vice minister level, was held on an irregular basis until the Yoon administration, when the two countries decided to hold it annually. The Deterrence Strategy Committee, which is attended by defense policy chiefs, is another irregular channel.

It’s unclear whether the Korean government’s influence in the US-Korea Nuclear Consultative Group will be greater than that of European countries in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group.

Nuclear sharing in NATO is epitomized by the joint nuclear plans that are produced by the NATO Nuclear Planning Group. Those joint nuclear plans involve the collective search for methods of deterring hypothetical nuclear threats and the determination of when, under what circumstances, and through which methods nuclear and non-nuclear options would be selected and executed.

The NATO Nuclear Planning Group, which brings together defense ministers from member states twice a year, is NATO’s key body for joint nuclear planning. The group serves as a forum for instituting political controls on nuclear weapons, setting collective policy and discussing nuclear deterrence, nuclear policy and nuclear posture. The NATO Nuclear Planning Group includes a Staff Group under the Nuclear Planning Directorate, which is composed of nuclear experts from NATO countries.

In other words, a permanent institution is in place to facilitate nuclear planning and deliberation between the US and its NATO allies.

In contrast, the Korea-US Nuclear Consultative Group won’t make Korea a part of the US’ nuclear planning or decision-making.

There are other reasons why the US hasn’t given as much authority to the Korea-US Nuclear Consultative Group as to the NATO Nuclear Planning Group. The US reportedly believes that setting up a trilateral deliberative body for extended deterrence with South Korea and Japan would be more effective at responding to North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile threats.

If Japan were to participate in the Korea-US Nuclear Consultative Group, turning it into a trilateral deliberative body, the group might serve as an interim step toward a trilateral alliance.

In addition, the US has reiterated that deploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea is not an option under consideration.

US national security advisor Jake Sullivan and other senior American officials rejected the calls made by some South Korean hardliners for Seoul to deploy tactical nuclear weapons or develop its own nuclear arsenal in several briefings prior to the Korea-US summit while reiterating that South Korea is in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Amid its focus on responding to the North Korean threat with extended deterrence, the Yoon administration has ruled out the possibility of dialogue. Yoon said in an interview with NBC on Tuesday that inter-Korean denuclearization talks would be “unrealistic.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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