The United States is not discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea, US President Joe Biden has said, appearing to contradict remarks by his South Korean counterpart, President Yoon Suk-yeol, that Washington and Seoul were in talks on exercises involving US nuclear assets.
According to international media reports, the South Korean president said in a newspaper interview that Seoul and Washington were in “talks on joint planning and exercises involving US nuclear assets to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats”.
Asked by reporters at the White House on Monday if he was currently discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea, Biden said, “No”.
President Yoon’s comments, in an interview published in a newspaper on Monday, come at a time of growing tension with North Korea, which test-launched an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles in 2022 and has promised to robustly counter what it views as military planning by the US and South Korea for a possible invasion.
In response to North Korea’s sabre rattling, Yoon has taken an increasingly tough stance and has called for “war preparation” with an “overwhelming” capability.
The newspaper quoted Yoon as saying the joint planning and exercises would be aimed at more effective implementation of the US “extended deterrence”, which refers to the ability of the US military — particularly its nuclear forces — to deter attacks on US allies.
To better respond to North Korea’s nuclear threats, Seoul wants to take part in the operation of US nuclear forces, Yoon told the newspaper.
“The nuclear weapons belong to the United States, but planning, information sharing, exercises and training should be jointly conducted by South Korea and the United States,” Yoon said, adding Washington is also “quite positive” about the idea.
On Tuesday, Yoon’s senior secretary for press affairs, Kim Eun-hye, said that Biden had to say no when asked such a direct question on such a sensitive matter, according to South Korean media.
“South Korea and the United States are in talks over information-sharing, joint planning and the joint implementation plans that follow, in relation to the operation of US nuclear assets, to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” she said.
The apparent contradictory statement emerging from Seoul and Washington appeared to cause some confusion.
The US has long had an extended deterrence dialogue with Japan to talk about nuclear issues and initiated the same dialogue with South Korea in 2016, said Thomas Countryman, the former acting undersecretary of state for arms control, who chaired the dialogue’s first meeting.
“It’s not immediately clear what in President Yoon’s statement is new and what is a rephrasing of things that are already happening,” Countryman said on Monday in a phone interview.
Countryman said Yoon’s comments, directed at the South Korean people, appeared to be in response to what he called North Korea’s provocations and rhetoric.