The alliance between Seoul and Washington dates back to the opening days of the Cold War. Since the growth of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions in the 1990s, the alliance has increasingly evolved to prioritize management of the North Korean nuclear threat.
Different Korean and American administrations have tried strategies including bargaining, military threats, strategic patience and so-called maximum pressure through diplomatic isolation and financial sanctions. None of these approaches have stopped the Kim dynasty’s nuclear program. Washington keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, and the two countries conduct regular joint military exercises to maintain readiness and deter any potential aggression from North Korea. The United States keeps the South under its nuclear umbrella, also called extended deterrence, and has similarly provided missile defense systems, including the THAAD system, to protect against potential North Korean attack. American tactical or sub-strategic nuclear weapons were stored in the country until President Bush removed them in 1991.
With the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, some in the South have questioned their non-nuclear status. President Yoon Suk Yeol mentioned the idea as an alternative to strengthening the American nuclear umbrella over Seoul in early 2023. Such a proposal would mean the country’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the very likely end of the USA-ROK alliance. As much as two-thirds of the South Korean population are favorable to the development of nuclear weapons.
In April 2023, President Joe Biden issued the Washington Declaration which committed the United States to deeper security cooperation with the Republic of Korea. This enhanced partnership guarantees the periodic presence of an American nuclear ballistic missile submarine in South Korean waters in a demonstration of allied extended deterrence. Under the announcement, the two will also have more extended deterrence discussions and dialogues. Biden announced that a nuclear attack against South Korea would, “result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.” Officials also made clear that there was “no plan” to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula.