South Korea, US in talks over US nuclear planning, tabletop exercise

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South Korea and the United States are discussing joint planning and implementation of US nuclear operations to counter North Korea and hope to conduct a tabletop exercise soon, officials from both sides said on Tuesday.

The plan came amid South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s push to strengthen American extended deterrence – the US military capability, especially its nuclear forces, to deter attacks on its allies – since taking office in May, in the face of evolving North Korean threats.

In a newspaper interview released on Monday, Yoon said the allies are discussing joint nuclear planning and exercises and that would help clear doubts about the extended deterrence, with its existing concept “falling short of convincing” South Koreans.

“In order to respond to the North Korean nuclear weapons, the two countries are discussing ways to share information on the operation of US-owned nuclear assets, and joint planning and execution of them accordingly,” Yoon’s press secretary, Kim Eun-hye, said in a statement.

A senior US administration official said both sides are looking at enhanced information sharing, joint contingency planning and an eventual tabletop exercise following a request from their presidents after a meeting in Cambodia in November to explore ways to address North Korea’s threats.

But the official noted regular nuclear exercises would be “extremely difficult” because South Korea is not a nuclear power, echoing the comment from US President Joe Biden that the allies were not discussing such activities.

“This is going to be done through a variety of ways, including as President Yoon said, through enhanced information sharing, joint planning and expanding the range of contingencies that we plan for, as well as training, and with the idea eventually leading up to a tabletop exercise,” the official said.

The timing of the planned tabletop exercises has not been finalized, but they would take place “in the not-too-distant future” and cover scenarios including nuclear situations, the official said.

“The idea is to also try and make sure that we’re able to fully think through the range of possibilities based on the DPRK capabilities which they’ve demonstrated, as well as their statements,” the official added, using North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A National Security Council spokesman said in a statement that the US is committed to providing extended deterrence, and that the allies are working on “an effective coordinated response to a range of scenarios, including nuclear use by North Korea”.

When asked about the tabletop exercises, a spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry said talks were under way but declined to provide details.

The two countries have revived consultations on extended deterrence this year after a years-long hiatus amid North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capability.

Pyongyang defined South Korea as “undoubted enemy” and vowed to beef up its nuclear arsenal this year, after firing a record number of missiles in 2022 and fueling tension by sending drones into the South in December.

“The US countermeasures have not kept up with the North’s advancing nuclear programmes, and the extended deterrence strategy is almost no different from when their nuclear capability was insignificant and weaker,” said research fellow Go Myong-hyun at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.



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