For the first time since the 1980s a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is in South Korea, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday, as the allies launched talks to coordinate responses in the event of a nuclear war with North Korea.
White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell confirmed the visit, which had been expected after the visit was announced in a joint declaration during a summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington in April.
“As we speak, an American nuclear submarine is making port in Busan today, that’s the first visit of American nuclear submarine in decades,” Campbell told reporters at a briefing in Seoul, where he was attending the first Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) discussion with South Korean officials.
The group, aimed at better coordinating an allied nuclear response in the event of a war with North Korea, was also announced during the April summit amid growing calls in South Korea for its own nuclear weapons, a step Washington opposes.
Campbell said the submarine’s visit is a manifestation of American commitments to South Korea’s defence.
South Korea’s Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo, who co-chaired the meeting with Campbell, said the discussions are enough to ensure there is no need for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons.
The two sides agreed to facilitate information sharing, coordination, and planning in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack, which would face an “overwhelming” allied response, Kim added.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said the new nuclear consultative group would be a “starting point” to build a strong and effective deterrence against North Korea.
“Through a South Korea-U.S. alliance upgraded to a new nuclear-based paradigm, we will make substantial efforts to fundamentally block North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” Yoon told a briefing.
China and North Korea have criticised the group’s formation as further raising tensions on the Korean peninsula.
On Monday North Korea, which test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week, condemned the NCG for “openly discussing the use of nukes” and warned against allied plans to increase displays of military force, including so-called “strategic assets” such as U.S. aircraft carriers, bomber aircraft, and submarines.
When asked whether South Korea will have a role in U.S. nuclear war planning, a senior U.S. administration official told Reuters the group was more about sharing information.
“A lot of the objective here is to make sure that our South Korean allies have more transparency, more access, more direct connection with planning, so that they can understand how government officials have long been thinking about what goes into defence and deterrence for South Korea,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.