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South Korea’s president-elect wants return of US nuclear assets

South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol (L) gestures during a ceremony disbanding the presidential election camp at the National Assembly Library in the capital, Seoul, on March 10, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has sought the redeployment of US strategic assets, such as nuclear bombers and submarines, to the Korean Peninsula, after North Korea warned of a nuclear response to the South if provoked.

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook on Friday said that his country had missiles with the ability to accurately and quickly hit any target in North Korea in the case of clear signs of a launch toward the South.

Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, lashed out at Seoul two times, on Sunday and Tuesday, for touting what she called its preemptive strike capabilities, warning that her country would annihilate its southern neighbor if provoked.

On Wednesday and during talks held on a visit to Washington, advisers to conservative Yoon, who is set to be sworn in on May 10, sought the return of US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula.

Yoon’s team of foreign policy and security aides made the request during a meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan as the incoming South Korean president seeks a more constant security presence to deter what Seoul calls threats from North Korea as it increases weapons tests.

“Deploying the strategic assets is an important element of reinforcing the extended deterrence, and the issue naturally came up during the discussions,” Park Jin, a lawmaker who led the delegation, told reporters.

He added that both Seoul and Washington explored ways to boost extended US nuclear deterrence.

“We agreed that what’s most important is to maintain deterrence so that we can strongly respond to any possible North Korean provocations,” Park further said.

Yoon had promised the voters that he would seek the redeployment of US bombers, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines to his country to “respond firmly” to what he called the North’s threats. He also vowed to “normalize” joint military drills with the US that were reduced under outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in.

North Korea has repeatedly emphasized that it would preemptively use its nuclear weapons if threatened by its foes, including South Korea and the US.

Relations between the North and the South have been shaky in recent weeks, after the former tested two ballistic missiles on February 26 and March 4 that involved a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system that the country is developing, and as it conducted a full ICBM test – the first since 2017 – last month.

The US withdrew all its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 in a move that Washington and Seoul called a clear message on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Tensions may rise further as Yoon is known for a tougher stance toward Pyongyang. He has said in the past that preemptive strikes may be the only way to counter North Korea’s new hyper-sonic missiles if they appear ready for an imminent attack.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un refocused on expanding the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities after diplomacy with former US President Donald Trump ended without any breakthrough in 2019.

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