For the first time since the 1980s, the United States has deployed a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) to South Korea, as the allies launched talks to coordinate their responses in the event of a nuclear war with North Korea.
White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell confirmed the rare visit on Tuesday, which had been expected after it was announced in a joint declaration during a summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC in April.
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“As we speak, an American nuclear submarine is making port in Busan today. That’s the first visit of [an] American nuclear submarine in decades,” Campbell told reporters at a briefing in Seoul, where he was attending the first Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) discussion with South Korean officials.
Periodic visits by US SSBNs to South Korea were one of several agreements reached by the two countries’ presidents in April in response to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat. They had also agreed to establish a bilateral NCG and to expand military exercises.
The USS Kentucky, an Ohio-class submarine, arrived at the South Korean port of Busan on Tuesday afternoon, South Korea’s defence ministry said.
Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup called the submarine’s visit a demonstration of US resolve in implementing its “extended deterrence” commitment, a pledge by the US to use its full military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to protect its allies, the ministry said in a statement.
He said the submarine’s visit “shows the allies’ overwhelming capability and posture against North Korea”.
During the Cold War in the late 1970s, US nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines made frequent visits to South Korea, sometimes two or three times a month, according to the Federation of American Scientists. It was a period when the US had hundreds of nuclear warheads located in South Korea. But in 1991, the US withdrew all of its nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have taken on a new urgency after it threatened to use nuclear weapons in conflicts with its rivals and conducted about 100 missile tests since the start of last year. Last week, North Korea conducted a second test of a more mobile and powerful intercontinental ballistic missile designed to strike the mainland US. After observing that launch, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country’s nuclear combat capabilities strengthened further.
Also on Tuesday, South Korean and US officials held the inaugural meeting NCG in Seoul to discuss ways to strengthen deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threats.
“Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime,” the two countries said in a joint statement after the meeting.
President Joe Biden issued a similar warning after his summit in Washington, DC with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in April.
“Both sides affirmed that the NCG will play an integral role in discussing and advancing bilateral approaches, including guidelines, to nuclear and strategic planning and responses to [North Korean] aggression,” the statement said.
The consultative body is tasked with sharing information on nuclear and strategic weapons operation plans and joint operations. The US will retain operational control of its nuclear weapons. US officials say the group’s establishment and other steps announced in April were meant to ease South Korean worries about North Korean provocations while keeping Seoul from pursuing its own nuclear programme.
Earlier on Tuesday, Yoon told a cabinet meeting that the launching of the consultative group “will serve as an important starting point to establish a powerful, effective [South] Korea-US extended deterrence” and that their alliance has been “upgraded with a new, nuclear-based paradigm”.
The meeting was co-chaired by Campbell and South Korean Deputy National Security Director Kim Tae-hyo.
North Korea condemned the Biden-Yoon agreements in April, saying they proved the allies’ extreme hostility towards the North. It threatened to further escalate its nuclear use doctrine in protest.
In a statement on Monday, Kim’s powerful sister and senior adviser, Kim Yo Jong, warned that the US moves to reinforce its extended deterrence commitment to South Korea will make North Korea “go farther away from the negotiating table desired by [the US]” and beef up its own military capability.
“[North Korea] is ready for resolutely countering any acts of violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Kim Yo Jong said. “The US should stop its foolish act of provoking [North Korea] even by imperilling its security.”