Leftist American President Joe Biden told reporters on Monday that his administration was not discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea in a passing comment while traveling, apparently contradicting South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol.
Yoon, in an interview with the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published that same day, had said that he had suggested “joint planning and joint exercise” with America that included nuclear forces and claimed the Biden administration was “quite positive” regarding the request.
South Korea is not a nuclear power and the United States has not stationed any nuclear assets there since 1991. South Korea revealed in 2021, however, that it possessed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) which can be outfitted with nuclear warheads; South Korea is the only country publicly known to own these missiles but not any nuclear weapons. Seoul could potentially use nuclear exercises with America to practice using the missiles with American nuclear assets.
South Koreans have historically supported becoming a nuclear power in years of polling.
The apparent discord between Biden and Yoon comes after two years of the Biden administration doing little publicly to address the threat of North Korea, which maintains and illegal nuclear weapons program and is in a state of war with both Seoul and Washington. North Korea’s communist dictator, Kim Jong-un, ended 2022 with a call for his country to “mass-produce” nuclear weapons for an “exponential” growth in Pyongyang’s arsenal.
Speaking to Chosun Ilbo, Yoon said that he had requested a more active South Korean role in the bilateral relationship regarding nuclear weapons.
“While the nuclear weapons belong to the US, intel sharing, planning, and training should be done jointly,” Yoon was quoted as saying. The president said he was discussing with American counterparts a way “to operate U.S. nuclear forces under the concept of joint planning and joint exercises to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.”
Yoon reportedly added, “[the] concept of a nuclear umbrella or extended deterrence in the past was to reassure that the United States is going to take care of everything regarding the Soviet Union and China and was before North Korea developed nuclear weapons.”
He also claimed Washington was “quite positive” about his proposal.
Answering shouted questioned from reporters on Monday, Biden appeared to refute that claim. According to a White House transcript, a reporter asked Biden, “are you discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea right now?,” to which the president responded, “no.”
“As President (Biden) said, we are not discussing joint nuclear exercises. The ROK is a non-nuclear weapons state,” a National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson said in a message to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, clarifying that Biden’s answer was consistent with American policy.
Yonhap went back to the Yoon administration with the NSC’s statement, which reportedly responded that Yoon was discussing “joint planning” and “joint action,” without elaborating. Yoon used the term “joint exercises” in his interview, however, which is a technical term typically limited for use when two or more powers engaging in the exercise possess nuclear capabilities.
The Biden administration has not prioritized security issues on the Korean peninsula and has not taken any significant action regarding North Korea since Biden took office in 2021. The Kim regime has repeatedly mocked Biden for years – once calling him a “rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death” – and openly stated following his assumption of the presidency that it received attempts for contact from the White House but chose to ignore them.
Under President Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un had made a public statement, alongside Trump in Singapore, that he supported “denuclearization,” without clarifying how he viewed the term. North Korea has typically used the term “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” to mean the removal of all U.S. military forces from the region, as America is a nuclear power.
Kim has abandoned this position under Biden, however, and outlawed any nuclear disarmament in a formal manner in September. He subsequently debuted what he claimed to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) model, the “Hwasong-17,” alongside his daughter, believed to be named Kim Ju-ae, in November.
During a meeting of his ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) the last week of December, Kim escalated from banning denuclearization to calling for the prolific production of nuclear weapons.
“Now that the south [sic] Korean puppet forces who designated the DPRK [North Korea] as their ‘principal army’ and openly trumpet about ‘preparations for war’ have assumed our undoubted enemy,” the state-run [North] Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) paraphrased Kim as telling his subjects at the party meeting this weekend. “[I]t highlights the importance and necessity of a mass-producing of tactical nuclear weapons and calls for an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal.”
Kim also reportedly emphasized that the nuclear weapons would not necessarily “be for defense.”
Following these threats, South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced on Monday that its military had founded a new agency designed to address North Korea’s nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.