The United States and South Korea have reaffirmed their alliance, agreeing that nuclear-armed submarines will resume port visits and threatening a “rapid, overwhelming and decisive response” to any North Korean nuclear attack, including retaliation in kind by the of the United States.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said the response would include US nuclear weapons, making explicit an element of the alliance that normally remains unspoken.
The warning to Kim Jong-un’s regime came as Yoon and Joe Biden issued a joint statement marking the alliance’s 70th anniversary, during a visit by the South Korean leader to Washington on Wednesday.
“A North Korean nuclear strike against the United States or its partners is unacceptable and would lead to the demise of whichever regime takes the action,” Biden said.
“I have absolute authority, and only authority, to launch a nuclear weapon, but what the statement means is that we will consult with our allies if action is required.”
The visit and statement came at a time of growing nervousness in South Korea over North Korea’s nuclear buildup and calls for Seoul to develop its own nuclear arsenal. The Biden administration is trying to reassure South Koreans of the United States’ commitment to security, amid signs the North has made significant progress on its weapons program despite years of international sanctions against the Pyongyang regime.
Concern about the threat posed by its neighbor has sparked serious discussion in South Korea about whether the country should develop its own nuclear deterrent. Once considered a fringe view, the idea of possessing nuclear weapons is now supported by the majority of South Koreans, according to recent opinion polls.
The South abandoned its nuclear weapons program nearly 50 years ago when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Washington officials are eager for that stance to continue, fearing the peninsula could become the center of a potentially dangerous between North and South.
But North Korea’s rapidly advancing weapons programs – including ballistic missiles that can theoretically reach the US mainland – have increased concern in South Korea that the US would indeed use nuclear weapons to defend its ally. under what it calls “extended deterrence”.
Yoon, a conservative who has abandoned his liberal predecessor’s policy of engaging with the North, said earlier this year that his country was considering developing its own nuclear weapons or asking the United States to redeploy them on the peninsula.
While Wednesday’s deal will see the US and South Korea coordinate more deeply on a nuclear response strategy in the event of the North attacking its neighbor, nuclear weapons would remain under US operational control, as Biden clarified that he was not contemplating the deployment of nuclear weapons in the South.
“We will not place nuclear weapons on the peninsula,” he said.
In the statement, Biden said Washington’s security commitment to Seoul was “iron” and that any North Korean nuclear attack on South Korea would be “met with a swift, overwhelming and decisive response.” US extended deterrence, she said, was “supported by the full range of US capabilities, including nuclear.”
Related: North Korea’s missile launch was new type of ICBM, regime says, first images emerge
The statement also said the Allies will consult more broadly “to defend against potential nuclear attack and use and conduct simulations to inform joint planning efforts.”
To underline the presence of the nuclear umbrella, US ballistic submarines armed with nuclear missiles will conduct port visits to South Korea for the first time since 1991.
“Sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula doesn’t happen automatically,” Yoon said. “Our two countries agreed on immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack and promised to respond quickly, overwhelmingly and decisively using the full strength of the alliance, including US nuclear weapons.
“The deployment of strategic assets will be done consistently and regularly.”
Derek Johnson, managing partner of Global Zero, a disarmament advocacy group, said the potential use of nuclear weapons by the United States would only increase tensions in the region.
“Nuclear weapons are a source of global insecurity and are at the heart of the crisis on the Korean peninsula,” Johnson said. “Adding more of these weapons to the equation, even temporarily, will not make the United States or South Korea safer or more secure. This is far more likely to aggravate, rather than relieve, pressures in the region, which could explode catastrophically at any moment.”
While Yoon is expected to use the statement to try to convince voters that Washington is taking South Korea’s concerns seriously, Jenny Town of monitoring group 38 North said the statement fell short of what some in the South they had hoped. It was “unlikely to get North Korea to abandon its current course in weapons of mass destruction [weapons of mass destruction] development and testing or to appease the debate within South Korea about its nuclear future,” he said.