Significance Of ‘Washington Declaration’ – Analysis


South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is on a diplomatic overdrive. The conservative President seems determined to leave his mark in Korea’s foreign policy, a marked departure from what his liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in tried sincerely but unsuccessfully to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue. Yoon is less than a year in office and he already made a furore in January 2023 by advocating that South Korea may revisit its nuclear weapons since North Korea was unrelenting to stop or suspend its nuclear program and missile launches. This sent alarm bells in Japan and in Washington. In March, Yoon visited Japan and achieved a diplomatic thaw in repairing the frosty ties on a host of issues. His visit set the stage for Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to pay a reciprocal two-day visit on 7 May 2023 in a further sign of cementing ties.       

As an important ally of the US, Yoon made a visit to Washington for a summit meeting with the US President Joe Biden. During his meeting with Biden, some of the concerns in South Korea and Japan were allayed when Biden said any nuke attack on South Korea will result in end of Kim Jong-un regime. With a view to dissuade Yoon and assure of the US intervention, Biden assured that if North Korea launched any kind of nuclear attack, both the US and Korea will overwhelmingly respond with all capable assets of the alliance. (1)

The talks between Biden and Yoon looked interesting as both have different and contrasting backgrounds and therefore little in common. Despite that both come from different ends of the political spectrum, as allies both had no choice than to engage as the security matrix in the Asian region has emerged quite volatile because of China’s aggressive posture and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and missile launches in regular frequency. While Biden is liberal and a lifelong politician, Yoon first entered politics only two years ago to run for President. While Biden is a father and grandfather, which gives the core to his identity, Yoon did not get married until he was 51 and has no children. This difference in background did not prevent both to see common ground in respecting the resilience of the alliance relationship as its importance is great for both in equal measure. (2)     

The US already provides the extended nuclear deterrence to South Korea’s security. Extended deterrence refers to a US commitment to protect its allies by threatening to choose a nuclear response in the event of an attack on them. Now, both Biden and Yoon went a step further and agreed to launch a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) to make a swift and decisive response, including nuclear weapons, possible under the deterrence framework. Through this, both sides shall discuss nuclear and strategic planning in response to North Korea’s possible attack. Though South Korea retains the right to decide how those military assets will be used, the US shall retain the operational control of nuclear weapons in its hands.

Washington Declaration 

The leaders announced the Washington Declaration, which contained a detailed blueprint of how Washington will deter Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Though the Washington Declaration meant America’s rejection of nuclear-armed South Korea, and contained enhanced commitment on the US extended deterrence to deter North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats, there is every possibility that public calls for Seoul to go nuclear shall continue despite enhanced security pledge from the US. (3) This is because there remains scepticism among some segments of South Koreans about the US nuclear umbrella and therefore the public calls for Seoul to acquire its own nuclear arsenal are unlikely to diminish anytime soon.

What did the Washington Declaration clearly specify? Under the agreement, Biden promised an array of security measures including regular deployment of nuclear submarines to South Korea, for the first time in more than 40 years. It also contained enhanced information-sharing of US nuclear assets and combined military exercises. In return, South Korea reaffirmed its compliance to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and the US underscoring that it will not be stationing any nuclear weapons on the Korea Peninsula.

In view of Pyongyang’s growing nuclear threats, if the US does not want South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons, its demands that the US redeploys tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea must be complied with. However, the US made it clear through the declaration that it has no intention of returning its tactical or any other kind of nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. From Korean perspective, the joint statement falls short of public expectations. Though the agreement itself is meaningful as it could be argued that Yoon succeeded in gaining further nuclear assurances from the US, it is unlikely to relieve public concerns about the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile prowess. The pro-nuclear lobby in South Korea is unlikely to loosen its guard and continue to advocate for the nation to build its own nuclear weapons.     

A recent survey conducted among 1,000 adults by the Asan Institute, released in early May revealed that 64 percent view that South Korea should acquire its own nuclear weapons. Even despite the launch of the NCG, it is unclear how much the US would be willing to concede to the South Korean military in having a say on decisions the US takes on its nuclear weapons. At the hindsight, it appears to remain limited. It also needs to be remembered that the decision for nuclear use is the sole authority of the US President and therefore the role of NCG is likely to remain as teeth without fang.

It clearly transpires that the Biden administration or any future President would not want a nuclear-armed South Korea and therefore drew a firm line on South Korea’s independent nuclear deterrence. If the US concedes to South Korea’s demands to develop its own nuclear weapons, Japan, another US ally, would inevitably follow suit. This spread of nuclear arsenals would go against Biden administration’s core foreign policy. So, the issue is complicated. Some security analysts in South Korea strongly feel that Yoon gave up on South Korea’s nuclear ambition too easily, thereby throwing away a powerful card it could have played against Pyongyang. They hold the view that regrettably South Korea voluntarily gave up the right to withdraw from the NPT at a time when North’s threats of using tactical nuclear weapons are becoming increasingly explicit. 

If this is the public mood on the nuclear stance in South Korea, Yoon really did not achieve anything. His observation during a joint press conference thus looks superfluous: He remarked: “Our two countries have agreed to hold immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack and promised to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly and decisively using the full force of the alliance, including the United States’ nuclear weapons”. Such a promise was included in the Washington Declaration. Yoon further clarified that “the level of extended deterrence and its implementation plan materialised in the Washington Declaration, is different from that of the past”. However, it need not be missed that in their joint declaration, Yoon promised to abide by agreements on nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear power, after his controversial remark earlier in 2023 floating the possibility of nuclear armament. 

On his part, Biden committed to further closer consultation but was categorical that the US would not be stationing nuclear weapons on the peninsula but have port visits of nuclear submarines. Biden was referring to a nuclear ballistic missile submarine, which is capable of launching ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. 

From the above, it transpires that South Korea has clearly shifted the political focus of its regional strategy to supporting “strategic clarity” from “strategic ambiguity.” What remain unclear is what would be the deliverables during the policy transition and how the Yoon administration would craft his policies that would align with the rules-based international order. (4)

Though during Yoon’s US visit, Biden seems to have granted South Korea a larger role in planning for a potential nuclear war with North Korea, there are doubts if those would ease doubts over US defence commitments that have fuelled calls for a South Korean nuclear arsenal. Under the Washington Declaration, Seoul renewed a pledge not to pursue a nuclear bomb of its own. Korean peoples are unlikely to be convinced and question why Yoon surrendered so easily. (5) The feeling that the US would not risk its own cities – in range of North Korea’s latest ballistic missiles – in order to defend its ally. The feeling in South Korea that South Korea is already a growing power that should be among the nuclear-power states is also gaining currency. There are also doubts if a new government when it comes to power in the US in the future it would honour the spirit and commitments contained in the Washington Declaration. The Korean peoples are surprised Yoon walked back from his own comments he made in January about South Korea developing its own nuclear arsenal and this disappoints them. Domestic politics might compel the South Korean leaders to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. It may be mentioned that it was only in March 2023, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon argued for building weapons to bolster the country’s defences against North Korea, even at the risk of international repercussions. The Washington Declaration could be a temporary thaw to the nuke argument and a hiatus on the debate but seems not a definitive end. 

If North Korea goes ahead with its threat of conducting a seventh nuclear test, the spirit of the Washington Declaration would be put into immediate test as this alarm would precipitate demand in South Korea to possess its own nuclear arsenal. The US might have to revisit its decision not to station US tactical nuclear weapons to arrest such hard feelings in South Korea when those develop. 

If South Korea acquires its own nuclear weapons, the consequences could be disastrous as North Korea would be provoked to build an even bigger arsenal in response. Breaking the non-proliferation agreements would likely trigger devastating sanctions on South Korea’s economy and threatens worldwide non-proliferation efforts.           

The concerns of the Korean people about the US commitment on South Korea’s security may convincing and thus reasonable. Earlier the US stationed hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea but later removed. In return, it signed other agreements to reassure Seoul. But when former President Donald Trump questioned the value of the South Korean alliance and threatened to remove the roughly 28,500 US troops stationed there if Seoul did not pay billions of dollars more for their expenses, the trust deficit only increased. The issue got more complicated when Biden came to power and withdrew US troops from Afghanistan, doubts increased in South Korea that the same may happen in case of South Korea and thus demand for reducing reliance on the US grew.     

In one of the few times, the presidents of both countries touched on the unification issue. The joint statement declared their support for a unified Korean Peninsula that is “free and at peace”. This raised questions about what role the allies envisioned Kim Jong-un’s government would play if such a future is realised. Earlier, a similar mention was made when former leaders Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye were in office last decade.    

Economic issues

While underlining the importance of the strategic partnership and expressing commitment to make it more robust, Biden and Yoon also resolved to build a strong economic partnership. Biden promised to help and support Korean companies’ investment and business activities. Both leaders agreed to consult and coordinate closely so that the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the CHIPS and Science Act can further strengthen supply chain cooperation between the two countries in advanced technology. Some Korean companies are concerned over the IRA and CHIPS Act subsidy programs, as they require South Korean businesses to make more investments in the US while keeping a distance from China. These companies are worried that they would be caught in this rigmarole of the US-China economic rivalry and could find difficult to protect Korea’s burgeoning trade ties with China.

It is not that Biden was not aware of this angle of perspective of the Korean companies. He therefore assured that the US views South Korea’s economic growth as a benefit to the US as well as freedom around the world. Both leaders reiterated the importance of the ironclad alliance “forged in blood” and is “a value-based alliance”, which is not a transactional relationship that operates for the sake of interests. Both also discussed their response to climate change, cooperation in international development and food and energy security. They also explored ideas on new areas of cooperation, such as cyber issues, strategic technologies, space, democracy and other areas that matter to the future of both countries.

China’s Reaction

When Biden and Yoon announced declaration reaffirming ‘nuclear umbrella’ to counter threats from Pyongyang and Biden decided his plan to send a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea on a visit for the first time in more than 40 years, Beijing denounced it calling as result of America’s ‘selfish geopolitical interests’. (6) China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning accused the US of putting regional security at risk and intentionally used the issue of the Korean Peninsula as an excuse to create tension.  

She further charged the US suffering from Cold War thinking, provoking bloc confrontation, undermining non-proliferation system, damaging the strategic interests of other countries, exacerbating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, undermining regional peace and stability, and running counter to the goal of the denuclearisation of the peninsula. Biden’s announcement not to base nuclear weapons permanently did not allay China’s fears. Mao termed the NCG as a Nato-style nuclear consultative group to share information on nuclear assets and intelligence, besides planned exercises and drills. Mao’s criticism was mainly on the US as South Korea’s role was not mentioned. She did not say whether China would take any retaliatory measures.   

It may be recalled that when Seoul decided to deploy in 2016 the US-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system against North Korean missiles, Beijing saw this as a threat to its national security. This sparked economic sanctions against South Korea. It transpires that the geopolitical tensions are high whenever a stakeholder nation takes any decision to ease tensions as other party views it differently. 

North Korea’s reactions

As expected, North Korean leader’s powerful sister Kim Yo-jong slammed Biden for making nuclear threats, saying it marked the “dotage of the old” and would receive appropriate response by his country’s atomic arsenal. (7) She called the Washington Declaration as “a product of the vicious hostile policy towards the DPRK which reflected the most antagonistic and aggressive will of action”. North Korea’s official state media, the KCNA, in a commentary said Yoon’s state visit as “the most hostile, aggressive and provocative trip and a dangerous one for a nuclear war”. South Korea’s Unification Ministry denounced Kim Yo-jong’s claims as “far-fetched” and showing the low level of the regime. The coming days might see Pyongyang ramp up provocations by firing ballistic missiles at a blistering pace. 

Pyongyang has claimed that its missiles could fly as far as the US but it is not clear if Pyongyang has succeeded in putting warheads atop the missiles long enough to reach their targets. Biden warned that if North Korea launches a nuclear attack on the US and its allies that would be the end of Kim Jong-un’s regime. Whether the glass is half full or half empty whichever way one chooses to look at, neither side seems to be relenting. So the dangerous game of threat to attack and counterattack keeps the region on the edge.  


  1.  Nam Hyun-woo, “Yoon, Biden vow nuclear response against NK nuke attack”, Korea Times, 27 April 2023,  
  2.  Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Ukraine, China main focus as South Korean president visits White House”, Washington Post, April 24, 2023, 
  3.  Lee Hyo-jin. “Washington Declaration means US’ rejection of nuclear-armed S. Korea”, Korea Times, 28 April 2023, 
  4.  Kim Yoo-chul, “Why Yoon is final piece in Washington-Seoul-Tokyo jigsaw”, Korea Times, 5 May 2023, 
  5.  “Calls for South Korean nuclear arsenal unlikely to fade despite U.S. deal, analysts say”, Asahi Shimbun, 27 April 2023, 
  6.  Liu Zhen, “China denounces US plans to send nuclear ballistic submarine to South Korea”, 27 April 2023, 
  7.  “North Korean leader’s powerful sister slams ‘Old’ Biden over nuclear threat” 30 April 2023, 

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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