By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, April 26 (Yonhap) -- The agreement reached Wednesday by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden on ways to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence may have effectively reassured the South Korean public of the U.S. resolve to help its ally but did little to address the threats posed by North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile capabilities, U.S. experts said.
The leaders issued the Washington Declaration in a bilateral summit in Washington, under which the countries will set up a Nuclear Consultative Group, which according to U.S. officials, will be similar to NATO's nuclear policy planning body, the Nuclear Planning Group.
Some of the U.S. experts noted that while the declaration shows how strong a response the North may face should it decide to attack the U.S. or South Korea, the leaders have offered little or no reason for Pyongyang to choose another path.
"The leaders strengthened extended deterrence by elevating South Korea's voice over nuclear planning," Patrick Cronin, chair for Asia-Pacific Security at the Hudson Institute, a think tank based in Washington, told Yonhap News Agency.
"The result should reassure the South Korean people and help quell for now the gathering discussion within Seoul for an independent nuclear weapon," he added.
The Yoon-Biden summit followed an unprecedented number of North Korean missile tests since the start of 2022, which prompted a heated debate on whether South Korea should consider arming itself with its own nuclear weapons.
Seoul and Washington agreed the only viable option was to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence, which refers to the U.S.' promise to use all its military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, when necessary to defend South Korea.
Frank Aum, senior expert on Northeast Asian affairs at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), said the Washington Declaration may be the "biggest success" of Wednesday's summit that "will help alliance coordination and communications on nuclear planning issues."
He, however, insisted that the declaration itself may not provide any "actual security benefits" in terms of deterring North Korea.
"If the goal is only to deter a war on the Korean Peninsula, then the question is whether these enhanced deterrence measures are necessary. The existing combined conventional and nuclear capabilities of the U.S.-South Korea alliance were already sufficient in deterring major North Korean attacks. Anything more risks escalating the tensions and arms racing that the Peninsula has witnessed over the last decade," he said.
"Given that North Korea's principle for dealing with the United States is "power for power, goodwill for goodwill," the alliance should expect a reciprocal response from North Korea, including potentially a seventh nuclear test, a military satellite launch, or a show of solidarity with China," Aum added.
The USIP expert noted the North had responded with "great advances in its nuclear weapons program" and over 90 ballistic missile tests between 2013 and 2017 after the alliance ramped up its deterrence demonstration in response to North Korea's third nuclear test in 2013.
The experts also argued that the call for South Korea's nuclear armament may come to life again in the future.
"The Washington Declaration may temporarily end the nuclear armament debate in South Korea, but it won't indefinitely," Aum said. "The South Korean public's support for indigenous nuclear weapons capability will remain high, typically around 70 percent, because it is driven by many factors like national prestige and the desire for nuclear sovereignty."
Cronin agreed, saying the Washington Declaration "is not the end of the debate, but it is a big step toward nuclear power sharing."
The declaration also does little to address the threat posed by North Korea, according to Anthony Ruggiero, former director for North Korea at the U.S. National Security Council.
"The Washington Declaration is an important step forward as the United States and South Korea celebrate 70 years of the alliance. But it does not address North Korea's expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program," said Ruggiero, who currently works as a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
Aum insisted that the allies should focus more on how to engage with North Korea, citing what he called strong correlation between U.S.-North Korea negotiations and lower levels of North Korean provocation.
"So any U.S dissuasion effort against ROK nuclear armament should also devote attention to how to engage with North Korea," he said, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.
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