US Denies Discussions on Nuclear Cooperation with South Korea

The United States and South Korea are reportedly at odds over whether or not they are discussing joint nuclear exercises. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said in a newspaper interview that the two countries were in “talks on joint planning and exercises involving US nuclear assets to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats.” However, when asked about these discussions by reporters at the White House, US President Joe Biden stated simply, “No.” This apparent contradiction has caused confusion, with a senior Biden administration official later clarifying that joint nuclear exercises are not being planned with South Korea because South Korea is not a nuclear power. The official did confirm, however, that the US and South Korea are looking at enhanced information sharing and expanding contingencies, as well as potential table-top exercises.

The conflicting statements come at a time of increasing tension between North and South Korea, with North Korea test-launching a record number of ballistic missiles in 2022 and promising to robustly counter what it views as military planning by the US and South Korea for a possible invasion. In response, President Yoon has taken a tougher stance and called for “war preparation” with an “overwhelming” capability. The South Korean leader also stated that in order to more effectively respond to North Korea’s nuclear threats, Seoul wants to take part in the operation of US nuclear forces. “The nuclear weapons belong to the United States, but planning, information sharing, exercises and training should be jointly conducted by South Korea and the United States,” Yoon said, adding that the US is “quite positive” about the idea.

This is not the first time that the US and South Korea have engaged in discussions on extended deterrence, which refers to the ability of the US military, particularly its nuclear forces, to deter attacks on US allies. The US initiated an extended deterrence dialogue with South Korea in 2016 and has had a similar dialogue with Japan for some time. It is not yet clear what, if anything, is new about President Yoon’s comments and what may be a rephrasing of ongoing discussions. Some analysts believe that the statements may be an attempt by both President Yoon and the Biden administration to reassure the government and people of South Korea that the US commitment to their defense remains solid. Inter-Korean relations have been strained for some time, but have become particularly tense since President Yoon took office in May 2022 and vowed to take a harder line on North Korea. Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared South Korea to be an “undoubted enemy” and unveiled new military goals, indicating that another year of intensive weapons testing and tension may be in store.

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