You are here

The Washington Declaration and US–South Korea Relations

Mr Abhishek Verma is a Research Analyst in the Internal Security Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 10, 2023

    On 26 April 2023, President Joseph R. Biden of the United States and President Yoon Suk Yeol of the Republic of Korea (ROK) celebrated the 70th anniversary of the US–ROK multidimensional ‘Iron-clad’ alliance. President Yoon travelled to Washington for the event. The Washington Declaration, signed during the visit of President Yoon, reinforces the US–ROK security alliance and strengthens commitment towards nuclear deterrence against North Korea’s provocative missile launches. The declaration states that,

    The ROK has full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitments and recognizes the importance, necessity, and benefits of its enduring reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrence.1

    The Declaration comes in the backdrop of intensified calls for nuclear acquisition in South Korea.2 In January this year, President Yoon stated

    It’s possible that the problem gets worse and our country will introduce tactical nuclear weapons or build them on our own. If that’s the case, we can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities.3

    President Yoon’s explicit remarks relating to nuclear weapons acquisition was on expected lines given North Korea’s barrage of missile tests last year (above 70). Pyongyang has conducted 30 tests so far this year, including the most powerful solid-fuelled, inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong 18.

    The Declaration therefore reinforces commitments already enshrined in treaties and conventions such as the Mutual Defense Treaty (1954), East Asian Strategic Initiative (1990), among others. In the Washington Declaration, Washington has committed to consult ROK with regard to potential deployment or movement of nuclear assets in and around the Korean Peninsula. In return ROK expressed “full confidence” and “enduring reliance” on US extended nuclear deterrence.

    Besides, ROK also reaffirmed its commitment towards nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). In order to give effect to a cooperative decision making on nuclear deterrence, information sharing and increased dialogues for strategic planning, Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) will be established.

    At the operational level, ROK’s conventional support throughout US nuclear operations in any contingencies will be worked out by joint planning, training and exercises through a newly established bilateral, inter-agency table-top simulation as well as by strengthening consultation bodies such as Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, which was established in 2017. Besides, military interoperability between ROK Strategic Command and US-ROK Combined Forces Command (headquartered at Camp Humphreys, South Korea) will be strengthened through number of activities including a new table top exercise with US Strategic Command.

    To try to dissuade Pyongyang’s excesses, US strategic assets will be more frequently deployed, including ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBN), for the first time since 1981. After AUKUS, under which US (along with UK) will provide nuclear submarine technology to Australia, this signals the US is further reinforcing its hard military power in the Indo-Pacific and Northeast Asian waters. 

    The US reinforcing security commitments has been necessitated by last year’s unprecedented medium to intercontinental ballistic missile tests by North Korea.4 Some of these missiles landed within or near Japanese or South Korean Exclusive Economic Zones. China has also conducted military drills in the Taiwan Strait, in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.

    In May 2022, ahead of the visit of President to the region, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that there was “a genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test, including long-range missile test, or a nuclear test, or frankly both, in the days leading into, on or after the president's trip to the region”.5 US concerns regarding Chinese military adventurism against Taiwan have also been expressed in recent past.

    The US has been intensifying its efforts to restrict such undesirable geo-strategic situations through alliance strengthening and hard military power reinforcement in the region. Initiatives like QUAD, AUKUS and nuclear consultation with Japan and South Korea can be seen in this background.

    Regional Responses

    Historically, the US–ROK mutual security cooperation has attracted an overwhelming response from Pyongyang.  The barrage of ballistic and cruise missile tests by North Korea last year was also in response to ‘Vigilant Storm’, a joint military exercise conducted by US and ROK in October–November 2022.  In March this year, days before US–South Korea military exercise Freedom Shield6 was slated to be conducted, North Korea launched two submarine launched cruise missiles, apart from the Hwasong-17 ICBM.

    Kim Yo Jong, Deputy Department Director of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea criticised the provisions of the Washington Declaration, referring to it as “vicious hostile policy” reflecting “antagonistic and aggressive will of action” exposing peace and security in northeast Asian region. Pyongyang charged President Yoon with incompetence and blamed him for putting “security in danger”.7

    Russia and China also criticised the Washington Declaration. Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the development “will have serious negative consequences for regional security, impacting on global security”.8 Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning called the development reflective of a ‘Cold War mentality’ that will ‘jeopardise Korean Peninsula peace and stability’.9


    Surveys note that more than 70 per cent of South Korean population support nuclear acquisition. The Yoon Government, given these popular sentiments, announced nuclear weapons acquisition as an option in January 2023. North Korea’s nuclear and missile brinkmanship to the north, coupled with China’s ambitions in the east, are leading to a more strengthened and integrated US–ROK strategic partnership. The Washington Declaration, therefore, reflects yet another effort by the US and South Korea to present a united front against North Korean nuclear and missile sabre rattling as well as to more effectively deal with the threat from China.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.