South Korea, U.S. discuss nuclear planning, drills

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South Korea and the United States are discussing the joint planning and execution of U.S. nuclear operations to counter North Korea and hope to conduct a simulation exercise soon, officials from both sides said on Tuesday.

The plan comes amid pressure from South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to bolster expanded U.S. deterrence — the U.S. military capability, especially its nuclear forces, to deter attacks on allies — since taking office in May as North Korean threats evolve.

In a newspaper interview published Monday, Yoon said the allies are discussing planning and joint nuclear exercises and that would help dispel doubts about expanded deterrence, as his current concept “does not convince” the South Koreans.

“In order to respond to North Korean nuclear weapons, the two countries are discussing ways to share information on the operation of U.S.-owned nuclear assets, and joint planning and execution of them accordingly,” Yoon’s press secretary, Kim Eun-hye, said in a statement.

A U.S. administration official said both sides are considering improving information sharing, joint contingency planning and a possible simulation exercise, at the request of their presidents following a meeting in Cambodia in November to explore ways to deal with threats from North Korea.

However, he said regular nuclear exercises would be “extremely difficult” because South Korea is not a nuclear power, consistent with U.S. President Joe Biden’s comment that allies were not discussing such activities.

“This will be carried out in a number of ways, including, as President Yoon said, greater information sharing, joint planning and broadening of the range of contingencies we planned, as well as training, and with the idea of finally arriving at a tabletop exercise,” the official told Reuters.

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The schedule of the planned simulation exercises has not yet been specified, but they would take place “in the not too distant future” and would cover scenarios that would include nuclear situations, according to the official.

“The idea is to try to make sure that we are able to think about the full range of possibilities based on the DPRK’s capabilities that they have demonstrated, as well as their statements,” he added, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A spokesman for the National Security Council said in a statement that the United States is committed to providing expanded deterrence, and that allies are working on “an effective coordinated response to a number of scenarios, including North Korea’s use of nuclear use.”

Asked about the drills, a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry said talks were taking place, but declined to elaborate.

The two countries have resumed consultations on expanded deterrence this year, following a multi-year hiatus due to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities.

Pyongyang has called South Korea an “undoubted enemy” and vowed to bolster its nuclear arsenal this year, after firing a record number of missiles in 2022 and stoking tension by sending drones to the South in December.

“U.S. countermeasures have not kept pace with the advance of the North’s nuclear programs, and the expanded deterrence strategy is almost no different from when its nuclear capability was negligible and weaker,” said Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

However, Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University, said Biden’s comment, which alone has the authority to authorize the use of U.S. nuclear weapons, suggests a U.S. reluctance to share nuclear operations, given its sensitivity and security concerns.

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“Given the growing voices in favor of tactical nuclear weapons, Washington might try to give assurances and send more nuclear assets whenever we wanted, but they are unlikely to fully realize President Yoon’s push for greater expanded deterrence,” Kim said.

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