The United States is not discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea, US President Joe Biden has said, appearing to contradict remarks by his South Korean counterpart, President Yoon Suk-yeol, that Washington and Seoul were in talks on exercises involving US nuclear assets.
The South Korean president said in a newspaper interview that Seoul and Washington were in “talks on joint planning and exercises involving US nuclear assets to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats”.
Asked by reporters at the White House on Monday if he was currently discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea, Biden said, “No”.
President Yoon’s comments, in an interview published in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper on Monday, come at a time of growing tension with North Korea, which test-launched an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles in 2022 and has promised to robustly counter what it views as military planning by the US and South Korea for a possible invasion.
In response to North Korea’s sabre rattling, Yoon has taken an increasingly tough stance and has called for “war preparation” with an “overwhelming” capability.
The newspaper quoted Yoon as saying the joint planning and exercises would be aimed at more effective implementation of the US “extended deterrence”, which refers to the ability of the US military — particularly its nuclear forces — to deter attacks on US allies.
To better respond to North Korea’s nuclear threats, Seoul wants to take part in the operation of US nuclear forces, Yoon told the newspaper.
“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 Washington is also “quite positive” about the idea.
On Tuesday, Yoon’s senior secretary for press affairs, Kim Eun-hye, said that Biden had to say no when asked such a direct question on such a sensitive matter, according to South Korea’s Yonhap press agency.
“When the Reuters reporter asked him point blank if joint nuclear exercises were being discussed, President Biden obviously had to say, ‘No’,” Kim said in a statement, according to Yonhap.
“South Korea and the United States are in talks over information-sharing, joint planning and the joint implementation plans that follow, in relation to the operation of US nuclear assets, to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” she said.
The apparent contradictory statement emerging from Seoul and Washington appeared to cause some confusion.
Despite Biden's comment, South Korea's presidential office continues to insist the US and South Korea are in talks on giving South Korea a bigger role in the operation of US nuclear forces.
Statement just now by Kim Eun-hye, senior presidential secretary for press affairs: pic.twitter.com/PcJ8UapAEw
— William Gallo (@GalloVOA) January 3, 2023
A senior Biden administration official appeared to offer some clarity in telling the Reuters news agency that joint nuclear exercises were not being planned with South Korea because Seoul was not a nuclear power.
The US and South Korea were looking at enhanced information sharing, expanding contingencies, and table-top exercise eventually, the official said, according to Reuters.
The US has long had an extended deterrence dialogue with Japan to talk about nuclear issues and initiated the same dialogue with South Korea in 2016, said Thomas Countryman, the former acting undersecretary of state for arms control, who chaired the dialogue’s first meeting.
“It’s not immediately clear what in President Yoon’s statement is new and what is a rephrasing of things that are already happening,” Countryman said on Monday in a phone interview.
Countryman said Yoon’s comments, directed at the South Korean people, appeared to be in response to what he called North Korea’s provocations and rhetoric.
“I do see this as an effort by both President Yoon and the Biden administration to reassure the government and the people of South Korea, that the US commitment remains solid.”
At a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party in North Korea last week, Kim Jong Un said South Korea had become an “undoubted enemy” and rolled out new military goals, hinting at another year of intensive weapons tests and tension.
Inter-Korean ties have long been testy but have been even more frayed since Yoon took office in May, promising a tougher stance on North Korea.
On Sunday, North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile off its east coast in a rare late-night New Year’s Day weapons test, following three ballistic missiles launched on Saturday.