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Monday, April 15, 2024

Yoon and Biden get nuclear exercise signals tangled

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks with reporters after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Monday. [AP/YONHAP]
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks with reporters after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Monday. [AP/YONHAP]

Seoul and Washington officials said they are not planning to hold “joint nuclear exercises” Tuesday, after contradictory remarks from the countries’ leaders.

But they confirmed they are working on plans that will involve U.S. nuclear assets.

In a Chosun Ilbo interview Monday, President Yoon Suk Yeol said Seoul was in talks with Washington “to operate U.S. nuclear forces under the concept of joint planning and joint exercises to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.”

Yoon told the newspaper that “although nuclear weapons belong to the United States,” the two countries must “jointly share information, plan and train” and that Washington holds a “positive position” on that issue.

He added that the “concept of a nuclear umbrella or extended deterrence in the past was to reassure that the United States is going to take care of everything regarding the Soviet Union and China and was before North Korea developed nuclear weapons.” That may not be enough to reassure the South Korean public anymore, he said.

But at the White House on Monday, after returning from Kentucky on Marine One, U.S. President Joe Biden was asked by a reporter if he was currently discussing “joint nuclear exercises” with South Korea.

Reuters reported that Biden replied “No.”

“President Biden obviously had to say, ‘No,'” said Kim Eun-hye, senior presidential secretary for press affairs, in a statement Tuesday. “Joint nuclear exercise is a term only used between nuclear powers.”

She added that the two countries are “discussing information sharing and joint planning, followed by joint execution, in relation to the operation of U.S. nuclear assets to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons.”

A White House National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday that Seoul and Washington are “working together to strengthen extended deterrence, including eventually through table-top exercises that will explore our joint response to a range of scenarios, including nuclear use” by North Korea.

In November, Seoul and Washington agreed to “information sharing and joint planning and execution” to deter and respond to Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear and missile threats in a joint communiqué after the 54th Republic of Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting.

At the time, the two countries’ defense chiefs agreed to deploy U.S. strategic assets in a timely manner and enhance such measures and identify new steps to reinforce deterrence.

The two sides pledged to conduct table-top exercises (TTX) annually, which would include a North Korean nuclear use scenario.

The TTX is a table-top exercise in which South Korean and U.S. government and military officials and experts discuss how to respond to North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons and missiles. It could be considered the “joint planning” portion referred to by Yoon.

In comparison, a joint nuclear exercise would involve drills in which Washington mobilizes its strategic bombers such as B-52Hs, which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and conduct training on nuclear attack procedures, as in the Steadfast Noon, an annual nuclear exercise held by NATO allies last October.

South Korea, a non-nuclear state, would not be able to take part in such an exercise, as pointed out by officials from both countries.

A senior U.S. administration official told Reuters Monday that joint nuclear exercises would be “extremely difficult” because South Korea is not a nuclear power, but that the allies are looking at joint contingency planning and an eventual table-top exercise.

“This is going to be done through a variety of ways, including as President Yoon said, through enhanced information sharing, joint planning and expanding the range of contingencies that we plan for, as well as training, and with the idea eventually leading up to a table-top exercise,” the official told Reuters.

After talks on the sidelines of Asean meetings in Cambodia in November, Yoon and Biden asked their teams to explore ways to address their increasing concerns North Korea’s recent actions and statements, according to this official.

While the timing of the planned tabletop exercises has not been finalized, they are expected to take place “in the not-too-distant future.”

The United States withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in the early 1990s following a disarmament deal with the Soviet Union.

As a presidential candidate in 2021, Yoon said he would ask the United States to either redeploy tactical nuclear weapons or ask for substantial nuclear sharing, and idea Washington has not been keen on.

In an interview with CNN shortly after taking office in May, Yoon ruled out the possibility of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons but he told reporters in October that he is still looking at ways to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence.

President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks at the Blue House state guesthouse in central Seoul Monday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks at the Blue House state guesthouse in central Seoul Monday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]