April 28, 2023 | Policy Brief

Washington Declaration Shores Up U.S. Security Commitments to South Korea

The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) released a statement they called the Washington Declaration on Wednesday during the state visit of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to the White House. The agreement strengthens the U.S. nuclear umbrella and security commitment to the ROK at a time when North Korea is expanding its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and threatening a preemptive nuclear strike.

The declaration coincided with celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Both sides committed “to develop an ever-stronger mutual defense relationship and affirm in the strongest words possible their commitment to the combined defense posture under the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Notably, South Korea reaffirmed “full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitments” and recognized “the importance, necessity, and benefit of its enduring reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.”

Crucially, President Yoon also “reaffirmed the ROK’s longstanding commitment to its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” In January, President Yoon suggested that Seoul may consider developing its own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea’s mounting nuclear, missile, and military threats. Pyongyang tested an estimated 26 missiles during the first quarter of 2023 alone and carried out more missile tests in 2022 than in any other calendar year. North Korea is also increasing the quantity and quality of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

The White House backed up Washington’s commitment to Seoul, noting that “any nuclear attack by the DPRK against the ROK will be met with a swift, overwhelming and decisive response.” In a press conference with Yoon, President Joe Biden was blunt in declaring that any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies would “result in the end” of the Pyongyang regime.

The declaration also committed the two sides to “deeper, cooperative decision-making on nuclear deterrence” and announced “the establishment of a new Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) to strengthen extended deterrence, discuss nuclear and strategic planning, and manage the threat from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).” The U.S. and ROK have also “established a new bilateral, interagency table-top simulation” for planning on nuclear contingencies. 

Finally, the United States will send a “nuclear ballistic missile submarine to the ROK” in a show of strength and deterrence against North Korean provocations. The visit will be the first of its kind since the 1980s. While the declaration does not explicitly mention China, it refers twice to changing threats and peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, suggesting the submarine visit may also be a U.S. message to Beijing. 

The Washington Declaration is a positive step in easing ROK security concerns, but it does not address North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The administration should immediately implement U.S. congressionally mandated sanctions that were passed by large bipartisan majorities.

Washington’s North Korea sanctions have atrophied since 2018, when then President Donald Trump embraced summit level diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Biden’s sanctions on Pyongyang have been infrequent and ineffective in targeting the facilitators and sources of the Kim regime’s revenue, such as Chinese individuals, entities, and banks.

To ensure that the allies prevent another war on the Korean peninsula, Washington must take the lead in reimposing sanctions on the Kim regime.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the program. For more analysis from the authors and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow Anthony and Andrea on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy