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U.S. and South Korea formalize a series of steps to try to deter North Korea

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

South Korea's president, Yoon Suk Yeol, addresses a joint session of Congress today. He was in Washington as President Biden announced a new military pact with South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Over the past seven decades, our alliance has grown stronger and more capable. The cooperation between our people, our commitment to one another, has grown deeper across every aspect of our partnership.

INSKEEP: Now, as part of this agreement, the United States says it will send nuclear submarines to the waters off South Korea. We've called up Jenny Town, senior fellow at the Stimson Center and director of its 38 North program, which studies the two Koreas. Jenny, welcome back.

JENNY TOWN: Thank you. It's great to be back.

INSKEEP: The president alluded to it there - a seven-decade-old alliance. It goes back, formally, to the end of the Korean War, where the United States, of course, fought on the side of South Korea. So what is new about this agreement now?

TOWN: Well, this agreement really does address some of the requests that have come out of South Korea over the past several years to know more about how U.S. decision-making, how U.S. nuclear policy actually works. There's always been a sense of, you know, there's a lot of conventional capabilities, a lot of conventional cooperation that's very integrated with the Combined Forces Command. But when it came to extended deterrence, there was a lot of, well, just trust us. You know, the U.S. will make the right decision at the right time. And so this is now really starting a deeper level of dialogue on nuclear policy, on the potential use. What are some factors that would affect and impact any kind of decision-making on the potential use of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula?

INSKEEP: I want to make this blatant, if I can. When you talk about nuclear deterrence, if South Korea is thinking about this, they're thinking, we don't have nuclear weapons. North Korea has nuclear weapons. We would like it known that if nuclear weapons are used against us, the United States will or may use nuclear weapons in retaliation, which hopefully prevents any from being used at all. Is that what South Korea wants more assurances on?

TOWN: That is what South Korea wants more assurances on, even though it has been rather explicit that this is one of the tools that is at the disposal of the alliance at any given time.

INSKEEP: How much does it matter that nuclear-capable submarines from the United States go to South Korean waters or that area, even if they don't have nuclear missiles on board?

TOWN: It's really a sign that - again, that it's possible. This is something we do have. Strategic assets that have visited the region pretty frequently, especially at times of higher tensions, is a reminder that - you know, of the full weight of the alliance capabilities. It's meant to sort of signal a show of force and - as well as be a reassuring sign to the South Koreans that the U.S. is there, it's paying attention, that the Combined Forces are capable and that, you know, the - they're prepared to, as they say in Korea, fight tonight.

INSKEEP: What makes South Korea feel that it needs more reassurance now, granting there are these North Korean missile tests, but it seems there are always North Korean missile tests.

TOWN: Well, these days, there are always North Korean missile tests. I think, you know, there's a lot of factors. Like, since 2017, North Korea has been working on and demonstrated more and more capable intercontinental ballistic missiles. This makes South Korea very nervous that North Korea's ability to hold the U.S. also at risk directly would affect U.S. willingness and commitment to coming to South Korea's defense if something happened, worried that it could also be held hostage to North Korean nuclear missiles.

And as well as - you know, I think the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine had a real psychological effect in South Korea of what happens if you have a nuclear-armed - a large nuclear-armed adversary as a non-nuclear weapons country. And so I think there's just a lot of greater anxiety about the entire, you know, security situation in northeast Asia these days and whether or not the U.S. can be deterred of - from defending South Korea or if they can even be distracted or even prevented from doing so.

INSKEEP: Jenny Town, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for your insights.

TOWN: All right. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Jenny Town is director of the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.