South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has said that Seoul is in talks with the US on holding joint exercises with US nuclear forces, a move that would significantly raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Yoon’s comments came a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for an “exponential” increase in Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. Yoon said that being under the US nuclear umbrella is no longer enough and wants South Korea’s military to be involved in planning with US nuclear forces.
“In the past, the concept of a nuclear umbrella was preparation against the Soviet Union and China before North Korea developed nuclear weapons. What we call extended deterrence was also the US telling us not to worry because it will take care of everything, but now, it’s difficult to convince our people with just that,” Yoon said in an interview published Monday, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
The South Korean leader said he received positive feedback from the US about the idea. “Now for effective extended deterrence, we’re in talks with the US about the concept of joint planning and joint exercises in terms of nuclear capabilities, and the US is quite positive about it,” he said.
President Biden appeared to contradict Yoon’s comments on Monday when he arrived back in Washington DC after his vacation to the Virgin Islands. When asked if the US was in discussions with South Korea on holding joint nuclear exercises, Biden simply replied, “No.”
Yoon’s office responded to Biden’s answer and insisted the discussions were taking place. “When the Reuters reporter asked him point blank if joint nuclear exercises were being discussed, President Biden obviously had to say, ‘No,'” a spokeswoman for Yoon said. “Joint nuclear exercise is a term used between nuclear powers.”
Under his proposal, Yoon said the nuclear weapons would still belong to the US, but “the planning, information sharing, exercises and training should be carried out jointly by South Korea and the US In the sense that South Korea and the US are jointly involved.”
The US stations nuclear weapons in European countries under NATO’s nuclear sharing program, but Yoon said the US was uncomfortable with the term “nuclear sharing” with respect to Seoul.
“Instead, if we develop this to a concept where South Korea and the US jointly carry out not only planning for the operation of nuclear forces, but also exercises, training and operations, based on shared information, that will in effect be an effective measure that is as good as nuclear sharing,” Yoon said.
Yoon was sworn in as president in May 2022 and vowed to take a more hardline approach to the north than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who was a proponent of Korean reunification. Since Yoon came into office, the US and South Korea have resumed massive war games, and North Korea has stepped up its weapons tests.
North Korea launched a record number of missile tests in 2022 and started the New Year by firing short-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast. The Biden administration has shown little interest in easing tensions as it has been deploying bombers to the region and maintains it seeks the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, which is a non-starter for talks with Pyongyang.