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Biden: The United States did not discuss nuclear exercises with South Korea

US President Joe Biden arrives at the US Virgin Islands airport. (27 December 2022)
US President Joe Biden arrives at the US Virgin Islands airport. (27 December 2022)

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — President Joe Biden said the United States is not discussing holding joint nuclear exercises with its ally South Korea, although the South Korean president told local media that such discussions are ongoing.

South Korean President Yoon Seok-wook said in an interview published Monday that the discussion focused on joint planning and exercises with U.S. nuclear forces, which he said had the same effect as “nuclear sharing.”

Any such plan would be a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward North Korea and would almost certainly further escalate tensions with North Korea.

Answering a question Monday night at the White House about whether such talks are taking place, Biden said, “No.” He did not provide further details.

Yoon made the comments in an interview with the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper on New Year’s Day.

“Nuclear weapons belong to the United States, but South Korea and the United States should jointly share information and plan training together,” Yoon said. The United States also feels quite positive about this idea. The

The United States has not deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea since the early 1990s when it withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula under a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union. South Korea is protected by a “nuclear umbrella” from the United States, which has vowed to use all capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to protect its allies.

Mr. Yoon said in an interview that such ideas are outdated. “When we say ‘extended containment,’ we mean that the U.S. will take care of anything, so South Korea shouldn’t be concerned about that,” he said, “but it’s hard to convince our people of that.”

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Faced with an increasingly hostile North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons, a growing number of prominent South Korean figures are demanding that South Korea obtain its own nuclear deterrent.

A poll released Monday by Seoul-based pollster Hankook Research showed that 67 percent of South Koreans support South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, with 70 percent conservatives and 54 percent liberals. This is the same as many other polls in recent years.

As a presidential candidate in 2021, Yoon said he would ask the United States to deploy tactical nuclear weapons or join a NATO-style arrangement for South Korea to be trained to use U.S. nuclear weapons in the conflict. The U.S. State Department quickly rejected the proposal.

Yoon Seok-Hyeon was relatively silent on such ideas after he was elected president. He focused only on the agreement, such as praising the United States for increasing the deployment of nuclear assets in the region, such as the deployment of long-range bombers and aircraft carriers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Mr. Yoon said in the interview that while the United States was uncomfortable with the rhetoric, his proposal was “actually pretty much the same as nuclear sharing.”

But many analysts have questioned whether the United States would sign such an agreement, saying it would violate U.S. global nonproliferation goals and support for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

“I don’t think the United States would agree to include South Korea in the nuclear program,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “which ultimately doesn’t require curbing North Korea’s nuclear use, because that’s basically done by conventional means.”

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The issue becomes more urgent as North Korea expands its nuclear weapons. In his year-end comments Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to “multiply” the number of nuclear warheads and build another new long-range missile.

North Korea is believed to have enough fissile material to build about 50 nuclear bombs, and short- and long-range weapons capable of delivering these warheads are on the rise. Some South Koreans worry that if North Korea can destroy a major American city, the United States may be reluctant to respond to North Korea’s attack on South Korea.

Many South Koreans are also uneasy that former U.S. President Donald Trump has often questioned the U.S.-ROK alliance and even threatened to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea.

Panda said the U.S. should be more willing to share information on its defense capabilities. But whether nuclear weapons are used in any given crisis is ultimately up to the president of the United States.

Duyeon Kim, a South Korean expert at the Center for New American Security in Seoul, said, “South Korea’s fears and desires are understandable, but the United States cannot jointly discuss its nuclear program to the extent Seoul wants.” This is too far away.

“I think Seoul should focus on tabletop exercises and incorporate scenarios in which North Korea uses nuclear weapons.” If they hold these exercises instead of immediately hoping for a nuclear program or nuclear sharing, Seoul will learn a lot about American thinking.

Even if Yoon’s nuclear sharing proposal is implemented, it may not satisfy many South Koreans who question America’s long-term defense commitments.

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Officials from both countries have repeatedly stressed that the U.S.-ROK alliance remains rock-solid, and the two sides have recently agreed on several occasions to strengthen defense cooperation.

But Kurt Campbell, the White House Asia policy coordinator, acknowledged last month that the United States’ nuclear umbrella in Asia is being challenged by many factors, including North Korea’s nuclear development and China’s major nuclear upgrade.

Many analysts warn that South Korea’s development of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic, leading to international sanctions, increasing tensions with its neighbors, and creating a “nuclear domino effect” that could lead other Northeast Asian countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

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