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Yoon: US, South Korea Discussing 'Nuclear Exercises'


FILE - South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during the ASEAN - South Korea Summits (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 11, 2022.

The United States and South Korea are engaged in talks that could give Seoul a bigger role in the operation of U.S. nuclear forces, according to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

In an interview published Monday in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Yoon said the discussions centered on joint planning and exercises with U.S. nuclear forces — an arrangement he said would have the same effect as "nuclear-sharing."

"The nuclear weapons belong to the United States, but South Korea and the United States should jointly share information, plan, and train together. The United States also feels quite positively about this idea," Yoon said.

U.S. officials have not confirmed any such negotiations, but in the past have ruled out the idea of nuclear-sharing with South Korea. When asked for comment, the U.S. military in South Korea referred VOA to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond.

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 of its capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend its ally.

In the interview, Yoon suggested such ideas were outdated.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."

Faced with an increasingly hostile and nuclear-armed North Korean neighbor, 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 South Korea getting nuclear weapons, including 70% of conservatives and 54% of liberals. The poll is consistent with many other public opinion surveys in recent years.

As a presidential candidate in 2021, the conservative Yoon said he would ask the United States to either redeploy tactical nuclear weapons or enter a NATO-style arrangement in which South Koreans would be trained to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons in a conflict. The U.S. State Department quickly shot down the proposal.

Since becoming president, Yoon has become quieter about such ideas. Instead, he has focused on areas of agreement — for instance, praising the United States for increasing its deployment of strategic assets, such as nuclear-capable long-range bombers and aircraft carriers, to the region.

In the interview, Yoon said that while the United States remains uncomfortable with the phrase, his proposals would "in effect be…as good as nuclear-sharing."

However, many analysts are skeptical the United States would enter such an arrangement, noting it would go against Washington's stated global non-proliferation goals, as well as its support for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

"I don't think the United States would be receptive to including South Korea in nuclear planning," said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "And it's ultimately not necessary to deter nuclear use by North Korea, which can be largely done through conventional means."

The matter has grown more urgent as North Korea becomes more belligerent and expands its nuclear arsenal. In year-end comments published Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to "exponentially increase" his number of nuclear warheads and to build yet another new long-range missile.

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 North Korea 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.

To deal with South Korean concerns, Panda said the United States should be more willing to share information about its defense capabilities. But the decision of whether to use nuclear weapons in any given crisis will ultimately depend on the president of the United States, he added.

"South Korean concerns and wishes are understandable, but the US 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.

"I think Seoul should instead focus on asking for table top exercises that incorporate North Korean nuclear-use scenarios. Seoul would be able to learn quite a lot about American thinking if they run these exercises together, rather than hoping for nuclear planning or even nuclear sharing right now," Kim added.

Even if Yoon's nuclear-sharing proposals were to be implemented, they may not satisfy many South Koreans who question the long-term U.S. defense commitment.

"In reality, there are many limitations because the United States has never shared its authority to use nuclear weapons with other countries," said Cheong Seong-chang, one of the most outspoken advocates of South Korea getting its own nuclear weapons.

"The United States has the final say regarding nuclear weapons and whether to involve South Korea more. It's doubtful how much practical progress can be made by such discussions," said Cheong, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute foreign policy research organization outside Seoul.

Officials in both countries have repeatedly stressed the U.S.-South Korean alliance remains rock-solid, noting both sides have agreed to several recent steps to reinforce defense cooperation.

However, even Kurt Campbell, White House policy coordinator for Asia, last month acknowledged the U.S nuclear umbrella in Asia was being "being challenged" by many factors, including North Korea's nuclear weapons development and China's major nuclear upgrade.

Many analysts warn South Korea's nuclear armament would be disastrous, leading to international sanctions, increased tensions with its neighbors, and the creation of a "nuclear domino effect" that could lead other Northeast Asian countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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