In a comment the South Korean government later insisted was meant as a joke, Defense Minister Song Young-moo told U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift that American nuclear submarines were no longer needed to protect South Korea against North Korea, now that the North has opened up and offered to begin denuclearization talks.
The context of the discussion was the upcoming annual joint military exercise between U.S. and South Korean forces, which was postponed due to the Winter Olympics. North Korea bitterly objects to these exercises, viewing them as a dress rehearsal for an invasion. Pyongyang frequently remarks that it will not consider denuclearization talks until the allegedly threatening U.S.-South Korean exercises are halted, a demand supported by North Korea’s patrons in China.
Some have expressed concern that if the joint parties hold the annual exercises after the brief Olympic postponement, North Korea will become enraged and back away from talks. South Korea’s conservative opposition fears that the leftist government will cancel the exercises to appease North Korea, which has not done much beyond attend the Winter Olympics on South Korea’s dime and suggest it might be willing to sit down for negotiations after 25 years of using such negotiations to stall for time while it works on developing nuclear missile technology.
As Yonhap News reports the conversation, Defense Minister Song told U.S. Admiral Swift that “lots of changes are expected in South-North relations” and security conditions on the peninsula were likely to improve, so Swift does not need to “deploy assets like nuclear submarines” during the rest of his tenure as Pacific Fleet commander.
Swift announced in September that he would retire after being passed over for promotion to the post of U.S. Pacific Commander (PACOM) after Admiral Harry Harris retires next year. He succeeded Harris as commander of the Pacific Fleet when Harris became PACOM in 2015. Swift’s tenure as commander of the Pacific Fleet included two fatal collisions involving U.S. destroyers in the span of two months, incidents that led to the sacking and retirement of several other high-ranking officers.
Another important bit of context about Song’s little joke is that a U.S. nuclear sub was more or less refused permission to dock in Busan during the Winter Olympics, sailing off to Japan instead after South Korean officials proposed a smaller and less conspicuous port city. The incident has been downplayed by both U.S. and South Korean officials, but sailing to Japan instead of docking in South Korea is not exactly like settling for a space in the further reaches of a parking lot because all the good spots close to the front doors of the Wal-Mart are taken.
“Critics accused the defense minister of making thoughtless remarks in public on the alliance at a sensitive time,” Yonhap writes. “His aides argued that it was a joke or well-wishing message for the outgoing commander who made tireless efforts to send strategic assets to Korea in the face of North Korea’s back-to-back missile launches and nuclear tests in recent years.”