WASHINGTON —  Analysts say the announcements out of this week’s White House meeting between US President Joe Biden and South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol set a new level of depth to on nuclear issues between the two countries — and are a result of, but likely not a cure for, South Korea’s growing drive for it’s own nuclear arsenal.

The core of the announcement is the creation of a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), which the White House says will “strengthen extended deterrence, discuss nuclear and strategic planning, and manage the threat to the nonproliferation regime posed by” North Korea. That went hand in hand with a public pledge by Yoon not to pursue nuclear weapons, and an announcement that the US would begin sending nuclear-armed submarines to dock in South Korea for the first time in 40 years.

Effectively, the NCG creates a mechanism by which the US and South Korean leaders can discuss what a nuclear response might look like to a North Korean attack. That’s a level of fidelity the ROK leaders have not had until now, and gives them the ability to weigh in — though not make decisions — about US employment of atomic weapons.

Markus Garlauskas, a longtime Korean expert who led US intelligence analysis of North Korea from 2014 to 2020, said, “Today may be marked as the day that the US-South Korea alliance truly became a nuclear-armed alliance — even if the nuclear weapons are still US-owned and US-controlled, we can now consider nuclear weapons to be an alliance capability.”

Like others, Garlauskas notes the NCG is based on an existing structure that has been in use with NATO for decades.

“There is a reason that NATO is held up as an example of how nuclear and non-nuclear armed allies can work together on nuclear deterrence and response,” Garlauskas, now with the Atlantic Council, wrote in an online commentary. “Even if NATO’s nuclear mechanisms are not perfect and the US-South Korea alliance is different from NATO in many ways, there is much to be learned from over seventy years of working with non-nuclear US allies in the nuclear-armed NATO alliance.”

Patrick Cronin, a long-time regional expert with the Hudson Institute, agreed this is an important step for the alliance, telling Breaking Defense that “these announcements move from extended deterrence to a new level of nuclear power sharing. South Korea [now] has a serious voice in nuclear planning. “

He expanded on those thoughts in an online commentary, writing that “South Korea will be better able to leverage America’s longstanding nuclear superiority, and the United States will be able to leverage South Korea’s mounting comprehensive power to preserve peace and shape the future regional architecture.”

Cronin added that the US should seize the moment and follow the NATO model even more closely, bringing in more friends in the Pacific. “This NATO-like nuclear planning group should also seek to build a multilateral path that would bring Japan and Australia into a deeper, common understanding about how best to maintain deterrence and respond to various contingencies in which deterrence might fail. After all, these US allies face increasingly sophisticated threats and all developing advanced weapons systems, from undersea vessels to hypersonic missiles.”

A Pledge And An Agreement, Born Of Nuclear Pressure

The pledge to not pursue nuclear weapons is, in some way, simply restating the status quo for South Korea, which has never had nuclear warheads. But it’s still notable, as there has been increasing talk about whether Seoul should pursue its own nuclear arsenal given both fears of the US abandoning its defense commitments to South Korea, and North Korea’s ongoing ballistic missile developments. (One poll from 2022 found over 70 percent of South Koreans would support developing domestic nuclear weapons.)

And there is consensus among analysts that the creation of the NCG was driven by the increasing calls for Seoul to develop its own weapons, including from Yoon himself in January comments.

“President Yoon’s interest in an independent nuclear weapon helped propel entrenched bureaucratic forces to advance to the logical next level,” Cronin told Breaking Defense.

Rachel Whitlark, also of the Atlantic Council wrote online that “integration of the South Koreans into US planning can also be understood as a way to try to stave off growing domestic interest in an indigenous South Korean nuclear weapons option, which may be an increasingly popular conversation topic ahead of South Korea’s presidential elections in 2027.”

Her Atlantic Council colleague Jessica Taylor added that the announcements “may not have the ability to decrease the South Korean public’s desire for an indigenous nuclear weapon capability.” As she writes, that is because “[any] concerns surrounding US abandonment will likely not be resolved within one US administration. With the 2024 US presidential election looming, it is unclear whether the winner of the election will hold similar views toward cooperative decision-making on nuclear deterrence.”

Ankit Panda, a nuclear analyst and author of the book “Kim Jong-Un And The Bomb,” also warned that the perception the Washington Declaration came about as a way to reduce Yoon’s interest in nuclear weapons could paradoxically empower those who want to push for a South Korean nuclear arsenal.

“While I see the Washington Declaration as a necessary software upgrade for the alliance, I do worry about the US creating moral hazard: ROK pro-nuclear advocates may interpret this to be a result of the surging calls for nuclear armament,” Panda wrote on Twitter. “As things inevitably will get worse with North Korea (including with a seventh nuclear test at some point), we might find ourselves back at square one; important for Washington to be clear with ROK that Washington Declaration doesn’t open the door to a slippery slope.”

Already, right-wing Korean media is responding with disappointment that the deal does not give Seoul more direct control of whether to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, a sign that this discussion is far from settled.