Jitteriness can drive a country into the strong arms of a protector state. Shaken by North Korea’s relentless sabre-rattling, South Korea sounded out the United States. Keen to aid and arm, American president Joe Biden teamed up with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol to deliver the historic Washington Declaration of 2023. Historic because the declaration aims to spread and strengthen the American nuclear umbrella over threatened South Korea. Is the declaration really historic in every sense?
The declaration happened on April 26th, during Mr Yoon’s six-day state visit to the White House. The partnership pact offers protection to South Korea against threats from North Korea. The declaration, part of the 70th anniversary of the alliance between the United States and South Korea, entails ‘regular deployment of strategic assets’ and perhaps historical for many other reasons. Tactical too for both partner countries. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/26/us/politics/biden- state-dinner-south-korea.html
Video Courtesy: YouTube/Al Jazeera English
The Hermit Kingdom is Alarmed
This regular deployment will include South Korean port visits by American ballistic nuclear submarines, first in decades. Though America does not intend to station its nuclear arms in South Korea, the regular deployment will still be strategic. For the simple reason that it will be the first major American positioning against North Korea, despite the fact the United States will not house its nuclear weapons in South Korea.
Visibly alarmed, the hermit kingdom has been hitting back at the pact. Kim Yo Jong, sister of the North Korean president Kim Jong Un, sprang up quickly to warn the pact-partners. She branded the declaration as a ‘dangerous move’. Mr Kim followed this up with threats of military retaliation and attacks on the pact-partners for having the gumption to make the declaration. Will the declaration reduce nuclear threats from North Korea or worsen South Korea’s security? https://www.bbc.com/news/world- asia-65433286
The Eye-for-an-Eye Posturing
The declaration will worsen the situation for sure. As the declaration demonstrates extreme hostility towards North Korea, it has ruffled the North Korean feathers. An irked North Korean dictator can retaliate in the worst possible manner. He may go on to perfect a nuclear war deterrent, designed to face a warlike situation created by the United States. North Korea is saying now the situation is indeed warlike.
The eye-for-an-eye posturing will turn the Korean Peninsula into a raging war zone. The declaration will have other adverse fallouts as well. Though the pact is sure to usher in peace in North East Asia, global peace will inevitably go for a toss. A prodded North Korean ‘madman’ can go to any extreme to satisfy his dictatorial ego. Already, Mr Kim has not taken kindly to Mr Biden’s remarks that a nuclear attack by North Korea would end the dictator’s reign. https://time.com/4953006/donald-trump-north-korea-kim- jong-un-dotard/
The Declaration Cannot Deter
What is now a historic declaration will end up then as a tension-heightening move in the Korean Peninsula. Though the declaration means much more for the embattled Peninsula, a narcissistic autocrat can cause enormous harm to the region. Driven by the desire to rule the world, Mr Kim can intensify tensions in the region to the point of blowing them into a war. Unabashed shows of North Korean weaponry may become regular. Continued United States-South Korean military exercises will ensure geopolitics of vengeance turns the region into an exploding fireball of vendetta. These are highly probable scenarios that deserve attention. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/ohio-ballistic-missile- submarine-to-visit-korea-for-first-time-in-40-years-reports
When the declaration cannot ensure peace for the region and rest of the world, how can it do the same for South Korea? The coming months are sure to see Mr Kim charged up. Expect Mr Kim to raise his stakes in the Korean Peninsula and go all out to demonstrate North Korea’s nuclear might. Despite such grim forebodings, South Korea is not seeking nuclear weapons. Or, is it not allowed to seek? Does this no-nuclear policy mean the declaration cannot deter North Korea from threatening South Korea?
The Problems Lie in American Politics
If Mr Kim uses nuclear arms, either against the United States or its protectorate-ally South Korea, can he really become the reason behind the end of his regime? Will the Putins and the Xis of the world sit back as silent spectators? Whatever, the declaration will provide big boost to military co-operation between America and South Korea. Strategic defence information-sharing will now become possible between them on a wider scale. https://poliphoon.com/the-rise-of-the-new- fascist-axis/
The Nuclear Consultative Group, set to be created now, will offer South Korea louder voice in deliberations and deeper insights into American planning for contingencies. Above all, the declaration will make regular deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic-missile submarines possible. There will still be problems and most of them lie in American politics. There is the danger of the pact turning invalid post-2024, when the presidential polls are done and dusted in America. https://www.cfr.org/blog/washington- declaration-expanding-nuclear-dimension-us-south-korean- alliance-response
Assumptions are Real Problems
The possible return of Donald Trump is sure to set off a storm in South Korea, jeopardising the pact in its wake. Worryingly, the declaration has no control over forces in America’s domestic politics and that is a real tragedy waiting to happen. The unreal assumption behind the American protection for South Korea is another problem. Expecting America to hit back if Mr Kim uses nuclear weapons against South Korea is rooted in shifting sand.
Despite a provocation, Mr Kim may not use nuclear weapons. He tested North Korea’s first nuclear bomb in 2006 and the nuclear threat has been in the air ever since. Yet, Mr Kim hasn’t used his nuclear power to date. Not all Kim-watchers agree. Dissenters point fingers at Mr Kim’s bulging nuclear arsenal. They argue trusting Mr Kim not to use nuclear weapons against perceived adversaries is being geopolitically naive and rank unrealistic. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41174689
The Pact’s Practical Value
They have a point when they say North Korea’s inter-continental ballistic missiles can hit American cities. They are right. As the cost of defending rises exponentially, against a nuclear-armed North Korea, Mr Kim will have an edge. The other problem lies in South Korea’s commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This commitment is implied in the declaration, which means South Korea cannot go nuclear in the event of an attack by North Korea.
Freezing South Korea’s nuclear actions will not help the declaration achieve its intended objective of protecting Seoul against Pyongyang’s assaults. What practical value does the pact then have for Seoul? At least, there is one practical value for sure. Mr Kim’s sworn enemies, South Korea and the United States, will come closer in a military co-operation, avowedly for fending off threats from North Korea, the incorrigible sabre-rattler. https://payloadspace.com/us-south-korea-commit-to- closer-cooperation-in-orbit/
The Craving for Nuclear Bombs
This military co-operation will make Mr Kim spend sleepless nights. Despite this, he will put up a brave front and pooh-pooh the pact. However, Mr Kim knows in his heart of hearts that a military misadventure in South Korea is sure to spell disaster for the Kim dynasty. Viewed from this angle, the declaration is indeed historic. This is the first-ever defence deal that will succeed in putting the fear of retaliation in Mr Kim’s heart.
Under this deal, America will send a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea, which will be again a first in four decades. Despite American support, South Korea craves for its own nuclear bomb. As this is not possible under the declaration, the pact is at best a weasel partnership. South Korea’s nuclear dalliance goes back fifty years in history. The nation voluntarily gave up its right to restart its own nuclear arms programme when it became a signatory to the NPT. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/u-s-south-korea- sign-nuclear-weapons-agreement-in-response-to-north-korean- threats
Bartering Away Nuclear Rights
Half a century later, the declaration on April 26th stops South Korea from building its own nuclear weapons. Really speaking, the declaration does not improve South Korea’s nuclear defences against North Korea, but only strengthens the American defence against Mr Kim’s attacks. Moreover, this April declaration confirms Mr Yoon’s conservative military policies. On assuming power, he had abandoned his predecessor’s policy of engaging with North Korea. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia- 60685141
The declaration now proves Mr Yoon’s political mindset. Any which way, the declaration will only intensify tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Mr Yoon may leverage the declaration as his vote-catching weapon. This will backfire. Quite possibly, South Koreans will soon realise Mr Yoon has bartered away the country’s nuclear rights and the right to have its own nuclear programme for some half-baked protection from Mr Biden.
In his opening statement in Washington, Mr Yoon said: “This is not a contractual alliance of convenience.” Sadly, Mr Yoon is wrong. The Washington Declaration is one such alliance of convenience. South Korea is signatory to the NPT, which prevents procurement of nuclear weapons. South Korea’s undertaking not to build its own nuclear weapons is thus not new. But, South Korea should enjoy the right to build them, if it wants to do so, in its own interest and America should have respected this right. Mr Biden should not have forced on South Korea a lopsided, an incomplete and a selfish pact. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches- remarks/2023/04/26/remarks-by-president-biden-and- president-yoon-suk-yeol-of-the-republic-of-korea-before- bilateral-meeting/
Will America allow Seoul to withdraw from the NPT? This is the question now, post-declaration. North Korea did withdraw from NPT in 2003 and went ahead to develop its own nuclear weapons. Why shouldn’t South Korea be allowed to do so now? The Washington Declaration does not offer answers to such questions. Clearly, the pact is deeply non-supportive of South Korea’s defence and nuclear aspirations. Soon, this will make South Korea worry about America’s dependability as a military partner and its reliability as a staunch protector-ally. When and if Mr Trump gets back into the White House, such worries will become real.