US and South Korea at odds after Biden denies Yoon’s nuclear claim

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On Monday, President Joe Biden denied that the US was in a discussion to implement nuclear exercises with South Korea. The statement contradicts a recent interview with President Yoon Suk-yeol in which he said both countries were in talks on joint exercises involving US nuclear assets.

When asked by journalists at the White House if he was currently discussing that matter with South Korea, President Joe Biden answered “no”. 

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s interview was published in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper on Monday at a time when tensions with North Korea have risen. 

Over the weekend, Kim Jong-un, described South Korea as his “undoubted enemy” and said North Korea would “strengthen” their military by increasing its nuclear warhead production. 

In response, President Yoon called for “war preparation” within South Korea with an “overwhelming” capability.

In the published interview, President Yoon said US was “quite positive” about the idea. 

The South Korean leader also added that the joint exercises would be aimed at more effective implementation of the US, which means the ability of the US military of deter attacks on its allies. 

He said: “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.” 

Despite President Biden’s denial, South Korea’s presidential office has continued to insist that both countries are in talks about giving South Korea a role in the operation of US nuclear forces.

Kim Eun-hye, President Yoon’s senior secretary for press affairs insisted that President Biden had to deny such a direct question due to the sensitive nature of the topic. 

She was asked directly if the two countries were discussing joint nuclear exercises, which can only be done between the current five nuclear weapon states.

In a statement, Ms Kim said: “In order to respond to the North Korean nuclear weapons, the two countries are discussing ways to share information on the operation of US-owned nuclear assets, and joint planning and execution of them accordingly.”

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A senior US administration official clarified some of the confusion about the two contradicting stances and said joint nuclear exercises would be “extremely difficult” as South Korea is not a nuclear power but they would continue to work together. 

The official said that both the US and South Korea were looking to share enhanced information, expanding contingencies and tabletop exercises eventually. 

Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University in Changwon has said that President Biden’s comment suggests the US is reluctant to share nuclear operations. 

They said: “Given growing voices for tactical nuclear weapons, Washington could try to give reassurances and send more nuclear assets when we want, but they’re unlikely to fully materialise President Yoon’s push for greater extended deterrence.”

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