Strengthening U.S. extended deterrence

North Korea's incessant missile testing, its unwillingness to respond to the Biden administration's calls for denuclearization negotiations, and China's planned expansion of its nuclear weapons stockpiles have created an environment of uncertainty regarding the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The Biden administration has been taking steps, at the recent Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) on November 3, as well as the recent summit meeting in Phnom Penh on November 13, to reassure and to enhance the capabilities supporting the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments to South Korea. 

At the 12th Joongang Ilbo-CSIS Forum on December 1, 2022, Dr. Victor Cha moderated a keynote conversation with Jake Sullivan, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, in which the two discussed U.S. policy on extended deterrence as it relates to Korea.  The key takeaways from this conversation are: 
  • The U.S. will work towards a more visible regional presence of U.S. strategic capabilities.
  • The U.S. is upgrading and relaunching the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group with the ROK.
  • The U.S. is considering ways to create more cooperative decisionmaking with allies South Korea and Japan on nuclear deterrence in the region, as well as deliberations on sensitive nuclear-weapons issues.

Transcript follows:
Victor Cha: Related to that, if I could just ask you with regard to the alliance, as you said, really a fantastic set of bilateral and trilateral statements over the past few months between President Biden, President Yoon, and Prime Minister Kishida. The Phnom Penh statement was really fantastic and unprecedented in many ways.
But if I could ask you to elaborate on extended deterrence, what more can the United States do to enhance extended deterrence with allies Japan and South Korea? You know, there’s a lot of talk here in Korea these days about the possible return of tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. Is that something that the U.S. would consider? Or would the U.S. consider things short of that, like nuclear planning with Japan and South Korea?
Jake Sullivan: So, Victor, our recently released Nuclear Posture Review highlights how we share our allies’ concerns that security developments in East Asia and in the Indo-Pacific writ large necessitate a strengthening of U.S. extended deterrence. So that is a kind of fundamental strategic premise that we’re operating from, and we’re operating on a common basis with our allies in the ROK and Japan.
And we’re working in our alliances with both the ROK and Japan to develop an effective mix of tangible measures to this end, of specific practical steps we can take to strengthen the extended deterrence commitment. That includes a more visible regional presence of U.S. strategic capabilities. It includes relaunching the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group with the ROK, which has had productive sessions – and those sessions have been reported out to each of our respective presidents. And it includes leader-to-leader-level engagement to work through what the next suite of practical steps will look like.
I can tell you that in their meeting in Phnom Penh President Biden and President Yoon spent a considerable amount of time talking through the extended deterrence issue, really puzzling through the ways that we can most effectively and jointly enhance extended deterrence. Now, unfortunately, I hate to let the audience down, but I can’t read out the details of that conversation on this issue and I can’t get into the specific military measures that are under consideration. But I can assure you that at the core of our dialogue with allies is a commitment driven from President Biden himself to engage in more cooperative decision-making with allies on nuclear deterrence in the region – that that is something that the president has committed to both to President Yoon and to Prime Minister Kishida, and he will follow through on it. And that includes deeper deliberations with allies on sensitive nuclear-weapons issues, both in bilateral formats and in multilateral formats. It includes measures that will help us upgrade the alliance software that we have in the region. And it will allow us also to take steps with respect to the hardware, too.
So, I’m sorry that’s about as far as I can go in terms of, you know, delving into what that will look like in practice as we go forward. But I can just tell you that from the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Defense Strategy, and these intensive consultations at the leader level and down to this Extended Deterrence Working Group, we really are taking steps to ensure that U.S. capabilities in the region can meet the growing threats from the DPRK and the growing strategic threat from the PRC as well.
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair