Seoul asks for ‘strategic assets’ from U.S.

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Seoul asks for ‘strategic assets’ from U.S.


In this photo provided by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo, left, and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, hold talks at the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. [YONHAP]

WASHINGTON - Defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States discussed a wide range of sensitive military issues, including growing demands in the South for redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s threats, a Korean government official said.

Defense Minister Song Young-moo, currently visiting the United States, met with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis for one hour and thirty minutes on Wednesday. Song had another 70-minute talk with White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

According to sources, the Song-Mattis meeting addressed issues that will redefine the security order of the peninsula. A possible return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, South Korea’s procurement of nuclear-powered submarines, transfer of the wartime operational control from Washington to Seoul and revision of bilateral missile guidelines, which prohibit Seoul from developing advanced missiles, were among the topics discussed, they said.

“Song made the first mention of the issue of the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons,” said a government official who attended the meeting. Washington removed all tactical atomic weapons from South Korea in September 1991.

According to the source, Song told his U.S. counterparts that conservative opposition parties are demanding the redeployment to resolve the security crisis.

“Song mentioned the issue while he was explaining the need to revise the bilateral ballistic missile guidelines and the need for U.S. deployment of strategic assets to offer extended deterrence to the South,” he said. “The United States expressed its understanding about the ongoing discussions in the South.”

The source, however, said there was no discussion on specifics.

“The issue of the tactical nuclear weapons deployment was raised while Song was explaining Seoul’s nuclear policy,” the source said. “And everyone knows where it stands right now.”

The Moon Jae-in administration has made clear that it is against the redeployment of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. “We will lose our justification for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula if we place tactical atomic weapons,” Chung Ui-yong, head of the National Security Office of the Blue House, said on Aug. 22 before the National Assembly.

While officials who attended refused to confirm more specifics on the Song-Mattis meeting, citing the confidentiality of the discussion, it appeared that Song asked the United States to positively consider the permanent deployment of other U.S. strategic assets because the situation is so grave that demands are increasing in the South for the return of tactical atomic weapons.

Strategic assets are arms systems that are intended to destroy targets crucial to carrying out a war, such as a military base or a defense industry infrastructure. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, nuclear-armed submarines and strategic bombers are among such assets, and they are stationed in the U.S. mainland and Guam.

“Song presented Seoul’s requests for the strategic assets deployment to Mattis and Mattis expressed his agreement,” a government official said. “The requests were made for permanent stationing and rotation.”

It remains unclear if the United States will actually make such deployments, which are very expensive.

The latest appearance of U.S. strategic assets in the South was Thursday afternoon when the air forces of the two countries conducted a live firing exercise near the inter-Korean border. Two B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam and four F-35B stealth fighter jets from U.S. bases in Japan exercised with four South Korean F-15Ks, a South Korean military official said.

The exercise was in response to the North’s intermediate ballistic missile launch Tuesday. The drill was designed for a preemptive strike.

Song also discussed the need for the South to build nuclear-powered submarines, another source who attended the meeting said. “Song and Mattis had an in-depth discussion on various options to effectively counter the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles,” he said. “As a part of the discussion, Song mentioned the issue. The United States shared the perception toward the North’s threats.” The administration and military have already made public their ambition to build nuclear-powered submarines.

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