The U.S.-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group’s Successful Launching

Amid all of the commotion on the Korean peninsula this past week with a U.S. soldier dashing across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) into North Korea and two short-range ballistic missile tests conducted by North Korea, the most significant event for lasting peace on the peninsula was the successful start of the new Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) between the United States and South Korea.

Established out of the state visit between Presidents Yoon and Biden last April, the NCG is designed to shore up extended nuclear deterrence commitments to South Korea and to integrate the ally into U.S. planning for contingencies on the peninsula that might involve nuclear use. While other bilateral defense and deterrence dialogues continue between Washington and Seoul, the NCG is distinctly at a higher level as this first session was led by Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, and his South Korean counterpart Kim Tae-hyo, principal deputy national security adviser.

The NCG meetings were coordinated with the port call of the USS Kentucky, a U.S. nuclear submarine, the first such visit since 1981. This is a nuclear ballistic missile capable submarine that the North Koreans would find impossible to track in waters around Korea. President Yoon visited the Kentucky in port in Busan. And Campbell made the dramatic statement of its arrival at the start of the NCG press availability in Seoul: “As we speak an American nuclear submarine is making port in Busan today. It’s the first visit of an American nuclear submarine in decades.”

One should not underestimate the importance of these political theatrics. Credible nuclear deterrence, both toward the adversary and for the ally, is a combination of two elements: capabilities and reassurance. There is no denying that the United States and South Korea possess the capabilities to defend and deter North Korean aggression of any kind. But reassurance has less of a material basis. It requires signaling and messaging on the part of the patron ally that the United States is singularly focused on enhancing nuclear deterrence and that it is constantly building capabilities and consultations for that purpose. The coordination of events this past week served that purpose very well—it sent clear signals to North Korea that U.S. strategic assets would be regularly present around Korea going forward; and it sent assurances to South Korea that the United States is working on making its ironclad nuclear commitment even stronger.

Substantively, the NCG established an agenda of 1) improved security for intelligence sharing; 2) nuclear command and control coordination processes; 3) development of planning, operations, exercises, and training; and 4) joint planning of South Korean conventional support to U.S. nuclear operations. This is a robust list of activities that will greatly enhance confidence in nuclear deterrence on the peninsula. In sum, the NCG is a unique alliance institution in Asia, unlike any other of the U.S. alliances to deal with the enhanced threat from North Korea.

Unfortunately, most of the headlines this week were grabbed by the now-routine North Korean missile tests and, in particular, by a U.S. soldier who ran across the MDL in the Joint Security Area during a Panmunjom tour. Having crossed the MDL on official travel, this author can attest that the transfer point adjacent to T2 (the “temporary” oblong structure for Military Armistice Commission meetings), while appearing relatively unguarded with no razor wire or checkpoints, is subject to very specific and strict protocols for any crossing. However, it is not well-defended against a random tour attendee suddenly sprinting and hopping over the slightly raised four-meter-wide concrete sidewalk-like structure that divides the two zones.

There have been about 20 Americans detained in North Korea since the mid-1990s, but the holding of a U.S. serviceman is relatively rare, with the most well-known case being in 1968 when North Korea held the crew of the USS Pueblo. In general, these incidents do not resolve quickly. North Korea will interrogate the individual, and will maximize propaganda value, probably doing a show trial and executing a sentence for alleged espionage. This could take on the order of weeks or months. To assure a retrieval of the individual, the Biden administration might have to send a current or former U.S. official. For example, former U.S. president Clinton was sent by the Obama administration to extricate two detained American journalists. Former president Carter also played such a role. Former governor Bill Richardson has always sought to play such a role as well. But it is still early in the process before any such decisions need to be made.

The only silver lining from this apparent defection is that the North Koreans may eventually be compelled to have contact with the administration, which it has thus far been unwilling to do. The irony is that in the past, the United States insisted that the dialogue should be focused solely on securing the release of the detained American. Now, the Biden administration, which has been seeking to re-establish dialogue about the weapons programs, may use the opportunity to send a high-level official to talk about more than the individual’s release.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair