With the beginning of 2023, unusual diplomacy meetings between South Korea and the US were busily under progress. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is extremely busy dealing with the Russia-Ukraine war and military cooperation with the Philippines, visited Seoul on Jan. 30. Soon after Mr. Austin’s visit, the US sent F-22 Raptors over the West Sea and participated in combined military drills with the South Korean Air Force twice in three days. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is also busy with a China visit in the aftermath of the spy Chinese balloon incident, met South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin in Washington on Feb. 3. Such a packed schedule between the two allies are rare in diplomacy were it not for a shared interest: extended deterrence.
When North Korea carried out its first nuclear test in October 2006, the US introduced the concept of extended deterrence for protecting the South. It is a military concept meaning that if an ally of the US has been attacked by a third-party country, the US would deter the enemy force using all military means including conventional as well as nuclear weapons. This has been in place for the past 16 years for countering North Korea's nuclear weapons program. But last September, North Korea threatened that it could use nuclear weapons preemptively against the South. The threat created serious anxiety and displeasure in South Korean society, and has led to questions about extended deterrence.
Questions on extended deterrence have been raised intermittently before. For each time questions have been raised, the US government has tried to demonstrate its commitment. As in the past, Secretary Austin's message, Secretary Blinken’s meeting and dispatch of the Raptors tell the same story: Extended deterrence is working well, and the US is strong in its commitment.
However, it is unclear whether South Koreans’ anxiety can be resolved this time. In a recent poll conducted by Gallup Korea at the request of the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies, 76.6 percent of Koreans supported developing its own nuclear weapons. The number was increased by 17 percent from a similar survey conducted five years ago. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s remark on the possibility of independent nuclear armament last month could be a problem. The atmosphere in Korea that considered nuclear armament as an unrealistic idea is disentangling. On the contrary, an alternative idea is growing that opposing nuclear armament and supporting extended deterrence is a weak attitude.
Then, how to increase confidence in extended deterrence? As conditions have changed, we need different measures. What are the elements? Trust should be the foremost among them. We need trust in three areas; between South Korea and the US, between the Korean government and the people and about the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) regime itself.
Enhancing trust between Korea and the US is related to the changed status of South Korea from an underdeveloped country to an advanced nation. The relationship between the two nations has been successful for 70 years, but it was a typical superpower and small country relationship. Diplomacy between them was focused more on consultation rather than negotiation. There was no big reason to negotiate because there were no big contradictions as they had a tentative conclusion for the alliance’s sake. If it is a consultation according to a set procedure, personal trust is not a variable. But now, Korea has become an advanced country. In terms of expectations and roles, there could be some conflicts with the US. The controversy over extended deterrence or nuclear armament is one of them.
If we want to increase confidence in extended deterrence, it is essential to promote trust between the Korean government and the public. Though three-quarters of the Korean population support independent nuclear armament, it is not easy for the government to stick to extended deterrence. The problem is that the Korean people are mostly unaware of what the government is doing. In the aforementioned poll, 61.6 percent of people replied that they did not know about the government's response. If the negative impacts of independent nuclear armament, characteristics of extended deterrence, and reasons why South Korea joined the NPT regime could be accurately explained, public opinion can be differently constructed. If the government wants to adopt policies that the public does not like, it must persuade the public and gain its trust. For the government to gain public trust in the field of foreign policy, prudence and consistency are necessary. Cooperation from media is also a must to aid in this process.
On trust in the NPT regime, the major responsibilities are on the five nuclear weapon states including the US. If they inspired confidence worldwide, the saga of nuclear armament in Korea would not have soared to this extent. Distrust in the regime grew recently after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons. The US is also giving off ambiguous signals in not taking an active stance in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. If left unchecked, trust in the regime will be seriously weakened. As the only superpower, the United States must show its sincerity about the NPT regime.
Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. — Ed.