On January 2, 2023, the Seoul Presidential Office announced that South Korea and the United States (US) are discussing holding an exercise on a joint nuclear operation against “North Korea threat”. Shortly after that, US President Joe Biden said that there would be no joint nuclear exercises in the region. Since it is not a nuclear power itself, South Korea aims to take advantage of the US’s capacity of mass destruction to respond to nuclear attacks from North Korea.
From this point of view, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views it received from Matteo Dian, Assoc. Prof. at the University of Bologna, in order to evaluate South Korea’s efforts to conduct a joint nuclear exercise with the US and its effects on the region.
- South Korea has recently announced that they are discussing joint nuclear exercises with the United States. Do you think Seoul could follow an increasingly aggressive policy towards Pyongyang?
South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, has suggested that US and South Korean forces could conduct joint nuclear planning and exercises simulating the use of nuclear weapons. However, the Biden administration denied this possibility, since the US normally do not conduct these activities with non-nuclear states.
In this case two different dynamics are in place. On the one hand, Yoon seeks both to send a signal of strength against North Korea but also to make the US-ROK alliance more symmetric, gaining a larger role in the planning of a possible nuclear retaliation against Pyongyang.
On the other hand, the Biden administration wants to maintain a clear and effective deterrence posture, but also intends to have the possibility to restrain Yoon, avoiding any steps (as joint nuclear planning) that would further escalate the tension with North Korea.
- South Korea cooperates with the US and Japan to create integrated deterrence. How might this affect regional security?
The level of triangular cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the United States is relatively underdeveloped, despite being strongly encouraged by Washington. Both South Korea and Japan have bilateral alliances with the United States created in the early Cold War period. These alliances have been expanded and consolidated in the last decade, becoming less asymmetrical. Despite the common threat from North Korea and the fact that both are democratic regimes allied with the US, many obstacles prevent a meaningful level of defence cooperation.
The main obstacle remains the unsolved legacy of the Japanese occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century. Significantly different perceptions of the role of China, of the nature of the regional order and their two country’s role in it further limit bilateral cooperation. Even relatively modest agreements as the GSOMIA (General Agreement Security of Military Information Agreement) are very unpopular for the South Korea public. Therefore, both countries have bolstered their deterrence towards North Korea in parallel, consolidating the alliance with Washington and improving their own military resources, in particular when it comes to counterstrike capabilities.
- South Korea was following a policy of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. To what extent do you think the decision of nuclear exercise with the US is compatible with Seoul’s policies? Could North Korea have a greater reaction to this?
Formally the long-term objective of the South Korea policy remains the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which means convincing Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear weapons. However, since this objective remains elusive, South Korea is seeking to enhance its deterrence posture. To do so, together with the Biden administration has restarted to conduct joint military exercises to send a message of resolve towards North Korea and to respond to its provocations.
The suggestion of some sort of “nuclear sharing” reflects both the aim of further consolidating the cooperation within the alliance and the need to respond to North Korea’s action (the record number of missile lunches and incursions with drones). Overall, in the short term, the situation seems characterized by a phase of escalation. North Korea seems willing to accelerate its nuclear and ballistic programme, to achieve its ultimate aim of being recognized as a nuclear weapons state and to decrease the effectiveness of the US-ROK alliance.
However, joint American and South Korean efforts to deter North Korea and maintain regional stability are likely to work if both countries remain aligned, providing clear signals of resolve, while avoiding measures that might unnecessarily escalate tensions.
Matteo Dian is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna. Previously He held research and teaching positions at the University of Bologna, University of Oxford; London School of Economics and Political Science, the European University Institute and Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. He earned his PhD at the Scuola Normale Superiore (Italian Institute of Human and Social Sciences) in Florence. He is the author of The Evolution of the US-Japan Alliance: The Eagle and the Chrysanthemum (Elsevier, Oxford 2014) Contested Memories in Chinese and Japanese Foreign Policy (Elsevier, Oxford 2017) and New Regional Initiatives in China’s Foreign Policy. The Incoming Pluralism in Global Governance (Palgrave, 2018, with Silvia Menegazzi) and La Cina, gli Stati Uniti e il Futuro dell’Ordine Internazionale (Bologna, Il Mulino 2021). His research focuses on International Relations theory, Security in East Asia, Japanese and Chinese Foreign policy, and US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region.