The United States and South Korea are engaged in talks that could give Seoul a bigger role in the operation of US nuclear forces, according to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
In an interview published Monday in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Yoon said the talks centered on joint planning and exercises with US nuclear forces – an arrangement he said would have the same effect as “nuclear sharing”.
“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 is also very supportive of this idea,” Yoon said.
US officials have not confirmed any of these negotiations, but have in the past ruled out the idea of nuclear sharing with South Korea. When asked for comment, the US 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 removed tactical nuclear weapons from the peninsula as part of a disarmament deal with the Soviet Union. . Instead, South Korea is protected by the US “nuclear umbrella,” under which Washington pledges to use all of its capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend its ally.
In the interview, Yoon suggested that such ideas are outdated. “What we call ‘extended deterrence’ means the United States will take care of everything, so South Korea shouldn’t worry about that,” Yoon said. “But now it’s hard 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 on the country to build its own nuclear deterrent.
According to a poll released Monday by the Seoul-based organization Hankook Research, 67% of South Koreans support the acquisition of nuclear weapons by South Korea, including 70% conservatives and 54% liberals. The poll is consistent with many other public opinion polls conducted in recent years.
As a 2021 presidential candidate, conservative Yoon said he would ask the United States to either redeploy tactical nuclear weapons or enter into a NATO-like deal in which the South Koreans would be trained to deliver nuclear weapons. American nuclear weapons in a conflict. The US State Department quickly rejected the proposal.
Since becoming president, Yoon has become quieter about these ideas. Instead, he focused on areas of agreement – for example, praising the United States for increasing its deployment of strategic assets, such as long-range bombers and high-capacity aircraft carriers. nuclear power in the region.
In the interview, Yoon said that while the United States remains uncomfortable with the phrase, his proposals “would actually be… as good as nuclear sharing.”
However, many analysts doubt the United States will make such a deal, noting that doing so would run counter to Washington’s stated global nonproliferation 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, senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “And there’s ultimately no need to deter North Korea’s nuclear use, which can largely be done by conventional means.”
The issue has become more pressing as North Korea becomes more belligerent and expands its nuclear arsenal. In year-end comments released on Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to “exponentially increase” his number of nuclear warheads and build a new long-range missile.
North Korea is believed to already possess enough fissile material to manufacture around 50 nuclear bombs and has a growing number of short- and long-range weapons that may be capable of delivering them. If North Korea can destroy a major American city, some South Koreans fear that Washington will be reluctant to respond to a North Korean attack on the South.
Many South Koreans have also been shaken by former US President Donald Trump, who regularly questioned the value of the US-Korea alliance and even threatened to withdraw US troops from Korea.
To address South Korean concerns, Panda said the United States should be more willing to share information about its defense capabilities. But the decision whether or not to use nuclear weapons in any given crisis will ultimately rest with the President of the United States, he added.
“South Korea’s concerns and wishes are understandable, but the United States will not be able to jointly discuss nuclear plans to the extent that Seoul wishes. It’s still too far,” said Seoul-based Korea expert Duyeon Kim at the Center for a New American Security.
“I think Seoul should instead focus on requesting tabletop exercises that incorporate North Korean nuclear use scenarios. Seoul could learn a lot about American thinking if they organized these exercises together, rather than hoping for nuclear or even nuclear planning. 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 US 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 staunchest proponents of nuclear weapons. South Korea obtaining its own nuclear weapons.
“The United States has the final say on nuclear weapons and whether to involve South Korea further. It is doubtful that practical progress can be made through such discussions,” said Cheong, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute for Foreign Policy Research outside Seoul.
Officials from both countries have repeatedly stressed that the U.S.-South Korea alliance remains rock-solid, noting that the two sides have agreed on several recent steps to enhance defense cooperation.
However, even Kurt Campbell, the White House’s policy coordinator for Asia, acknowledged last month that the US nuclear umbrella in Asia was “challenged” by many factors, including the development of nuclear weapons from the United States. North Korea and China’s major nuclear upgrade.
Many analysts warn that arming South Korea with nuclear weapons would be disastrous, leading to international sanctions, heightened tensions with its neighbors and the creation of a “nuclear domino effect” that could drive other South Asian countries Northeast to acquire nuclear weapons.
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.