The United States plans to hold table-top drills and expand other areas of defense cooperation with South Korea, but is not considering joint nuclear exercises with Seoul, according to a senior U.S. administration official.
The U.S. announcement came after South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said in an interview Monday the United States and South Korea were in talks meant to give Seoul a bigger role in the operation of U.S. nuclear forces.
Yoon told the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper the discussions centered on joint planning and exercises with U.S. nuclear forces — a process he envisioned would have the same effect as "nuclear sharing."
Asked late Monday whether he was discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea, U.S. President Joe Biden replied, "No." Biden, who was returning from a trip to the eastern U.S. state of Kentucky, did not elaborate.
In a statement emailed late Tuesday to VOA, a senior U.S. official attempted to clarify the situation by saying that the United States and South Korea are "working together to strengthen extended deterrence, including eventually through table-top exercises that will explore our joint response to a range of scenarios, including nuclear use by the DPRK."
North Korea — also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — last year launched a record number of ballistic missiles and on Sunday vowed to "exponentially increase" production of its nuclear warheads.
North Korea's recent actions and statements have caused "increasing concern," the U.S. official added.
Both the U.S. and South Korean presidential offices later denied any contradiction between the Biden and Yoon comments, noting that since South Korea is not a nuclear weapons state it cannot technically participate in "joint nuclear exercises."
Though the situation may have arisen partly because of semantics, many analysts suggest it reflects behind-the-scenes tensions between the two allies over how best to involve South Korea in countering the North Korean threat.
Yoon, a conservative, has in the past pushed for Washington and Seoul to enter a NATO-style arrangement in which South Koreans would be trained to use U.S. nuclear weapons in a conflict. For now, it seems South Korea may have to be happy with more cooperation in other areas.
Following a November meeting between Biden and Yoon in Cambodia, both leaders tasked their teams to come up with a plan "for an effective coordinated response to a range of scenarios, including nuclear use by North Korea," a White House National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement emailed to VOA.
"As the President said, we are not discussing joint nuclear exercises," the NSC official added.
In a statement to reporters, South Korean presidential spokesperson Kim Eun-hye defended Yoon's remarks. "South Korea and the United States are discussing information sharing, joint planning, and subsequent joint implementation plans in relation to U.S. nuclear assets, to respond to North Korea's nuclear threat," she said.
The United States has not stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea since the early 1990s, when it pulled tactical nukes from the peninsula as part of a disarmament deal with the Soviet Union. Instead, South Korea is protected by the U.S. "nuclear umbrella," under which Washington vows to use all its capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend its ally.
In the interview Monday, Yoon suggested such ideas were outdated. "What we call 'extended deterrence' means that the United States will take care of everything, so South Korea should not worry about it," Yoon said. "But now, it is difficult to convince our people with just this idea."
As a presidential candidate in 2021, Yoon said he would ask the United States to either redeploy tactical nuclear weapons or agree to nuclear-sharing. The U.S. State Department quickly shot down the proposal.
Many analysts are skeptical the United States would enter a nuclear-sharing arrangement with South Korea, noting it would go against Washington's stated global nonproliferation goals as well as its support for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
"South Korean concerns and wishes are understandable, but the U.S. won't be able to jointly discuss nuclear plans to the degree that Seoul wants. That's still a bridge way too far," said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based Korea specialist at the Center for a New American Security.
If South Korea participates in table-top exercises, it could learn more about how the U.S. weighs its options in various crisis scenarios, according to Kim.
"Since joint nuclear planning won't happen and Seoul wants a voice, South Korean leaders like the president could instead unilaterally tell the U.S. president which North Korean targets they'd like him/her to consider in their nuclear plans without expecting a response back," Kim said.
"It's conceivable that South Korean fighter jets could someday practice escorting U.S. bombers as one way of doing 'nuclear sharing' done by NATO, but it's hard to imagine the U.S. doing more than that," she added.
Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, also doubts the United States would be open to including South Korea in nuclear planning.
"Ultimately, the decision concerning whether or not nuclear weapons ought to be introduced into a specific crisis contingency will depend on the president of the United States," Panda told VOA.
The matter has grown more urgent as North Korea becomes more belligerent and expands its nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is already believed to have enough fissile material to build around 50 nuclear bombs and has a growing number of both short- and long-range weapons that could be capable of delivering them. If Pyongyang can destroy a major U.S. city, some South Koreans fear, Washington may be reluctant to respond to a North Korean attack on the South.
Many South Koreans were also rattled by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who regularly questioned the value of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and even threatened to pull U.S. troops from Korea.
As a result, a growing number of prominent South Koreans have called for the country to acquire its own nuclear deterrent.
According to a poll published Monday by the Seoul-based Hankook Research organization, 67% of South Koreans support the country acquiring nuclear weapons, including 70% of conservatives and 54% of liberals.
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.