Last week’s announcement that the United States will send nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea for the first time since the 1980s is significant and dangerous. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to the United States was meant to reassure South Korea’s security, but this announcement will simply undermine security in the region. While the United States has no plans to permanently station nuclear weapons in South Korea, the White House said it will regularly send bombers, aircraft carriers, and other assets to the region, a move that threatens to amplify already-heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
These measures, as well as US-South Korea joint military exercises and US-China tensions, will only heighten the risk of nuclear war in Korea. The United States and South Korea’s decision is simply a band-aid solution that does not address the underlying root cause of the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula: the unresolved Korean War.
The Wrong Answer
While it’s a positive step that South Korea has pledged not to pursue nuclear weapons, this announcement should not be seen as a win for the nonproliferation regime. The US move to regularly deploy nuclear submarines to South Korea shows a continued focus on conventional nuclear deterrence wisdom, which will not improve global security. The more countries rely on nuclear weapons as their main deterrent to war, the more likely it is that nuclear weapons will be used by accident, miscalculation, or on purpose. Nuclear deterrence can only hold for so long, and we cannot rely on nuclear weapons to keep us safe.
Rather than de-escalating tensions with North Korea, US-South Korea military exercises have only furthered the cycle of escalation on the Korean Peninsula.
This agreement between the United States and South Korea follows North Korea’s escalation in provocations over the last year, including an expansion in its nuclear capabilities and, in 2022, more than 90 missile tests. It’s worth noting that this increase in North Korean provocations has taken place against a backdrop of deepening military alliances in the region to counter China’s rise, the resumption of US-South Korea joint military exercises, and the continued stalemate in US-North Korea negotiations since 2019. However, just as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is seen as dangerous and illegal, the US nuclear umbrella that is supposedly “protecting” South Korea should also be seen as impermissible.
“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
However, the US and South Korea’s attempts at deterrence — namely provocative military exercises — have fallen short of their obligations under the NPT and seem to only be escalating tensions with North Korea.
The White House has also said that the United States will strengthen training, military exercises, and simulation activities. This announcement comes alongside the expansion in US-ROK joint military exercises in the past few months, with the largest joint field exercises in five years having taken place in March 2023. These exercises featured US nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, naval training with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and anti-submarine drills. Yoon said in an interview with Reuters in mid-April 2023 that Seoul “will bolster its surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence analysis capabilities and develop ultra-high-performance, high-power weapons to fend off threats from the North.”
On Capitol Hill, some Republican lawmakers are advocating for increasing the number of anti-ballistic missile systems to be able to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats from US adversaries. Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) has argued for building a third missile defense interceptor site on the east coast of the United States in order to respond to adversaries like North Korea.
Rather than de-escalating tensions with North Korea, US-South Korea military exercises have only furthered the cycle of escalation on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea views US-South Korea joint military exercises as rehearsals for war and repeatedly responds to them with missile tests. If the goal is to decrease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, then increasing military activities will only make things worse.
The Need For A Peace-First Approach
In its April 2021 North Korea policy review, the Biden administration re-iterated the United States’ long-standing goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, the only way to make progress on denuclearization is through a diplomatic approach. When the United States and North Korea were engaged in diplomacy, we saw tangible results: North Korea self-imposed a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests, and returned the remains of US soldiers.
North Korea’s stated justification for its nuclear weapons program is to protect itself from a US invasion or pre-emptive strike. Thus, more military provocations from the United States, South Korea, and allies will only make the situation more dangerous, leaving the underlying root cause of the nuclear crisis — the enduring state of war between the United States and North Korea — unresolved. The armistice agreement signed in 1953 was always meant to be replaced with a peace agreement to legally end the state of war. However, to this day, a peace agreement has never been signed. While the armistice agreement ended active fighting of the Korean War, legally, the war never ended. All sides have stated that the ultimate goal is a lasting and stable peace regime. And in 2018, the two Koreas called for a peace agreement in talks with the United States and potentially China.
US lawmakers have an opportunity to support a peace-first approach and pave the way toward a more peaceful and stable future for the Korean Peninsula. The Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, H.R.1369, reintroduced by Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and 20 original cosponsors on Mar. 1, 2023, calls for diplomacy with North Korea to formally end the Korean War, a review of travel restrictions to North Korea, and the establishment of liaison offices in the US and North Korea. This would be a pivotal first step toward de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
During Yoon and President Joe Biden’s Apr. 26, 2023, press conference at the White House, Biden stated, “A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States, its allies or partisans — partners — is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.” That rhetoric is reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” comments in 2017 and will only aggravate North Korea, continuing tit-for-tit military escalations. Despite comments from multiple administration officials that they wish to restart diplomatic talks with North Korea, this rhetoric and corresponding deterrence measures show that US priorities are not aligned with this thinking.
The Biden administration must take a new approach to North Korea, moving away from the discourse that nuclear weapons will keep us safe and the reliance on the nuclear umbrella and, instead, pivoting toward peace.