A U.S. submarine capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles arrived in South Korea on Tuesday for the first time in four decades, the latest effort by Washington to boost South Koreans’ trust in its commitment to defending the country against North Korea.
“As we speak, an American nuclear submarine is making port in Busan today,” Kurt Campbell, the White House Indo-Pacific coordinator, told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday, referring to the port in the southwestern corner of South Korea.
Hours later, early Wednesday local time, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, according to South Korea’s military. The North has been bristling for days over the Pentagon’s plan to send the nuclear submarine, and fired its newest intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-18, last Wednesday.
The Pentagon had said that a nuclear ballistic missile submarine was on its way, but Mr. Campbell was the first American official to confirm its arrival.
The port call by the Kentucky, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, “reflects the United States’ ironclad commitment to the Republic of Korea for our extended deterrence guarantee,” the U.S. military said in a statement on Tuesday, using South Korea’s official name.
When President Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk Yeol, met in Washington in April, a question at the top of their agenda was how to assure worried South Koreans that the United States would defend its ally from North Korea despite the North’s growing nuclear arsenal.
Before the summit, Mr. Yoon suggested that South Korea might one day try to develop its own nuclear weapons.
In the summit meeting, Mr. Yoon reaffirmed South Korea’s policy of not developing nuclear weapons. Instead, the two leaders announced a “Washington Declaration” in which Mr. Biden said that any nuclear attack by the North against the South would be met with “a swift, overwhelming and decisive response” with “the full range of U.S. capabilities, including nuclear.”
To demonstrate such a commitment, the United States agreed to enhance the “regular visibility” of strategic assets around the Korean Peninsula, including a visit by a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine. The allies also agreed to establish a Nuclear Consultative Group to discuss how to respond to a nuclear attack from Kim Jong-un’s forces.
Mr. Campbell led the American delegation to the group’s inaugural meeting on Tuesday in Mr. Yoon’s presidential office in Seoul. Mr. Yoon told the meeting that his country’s ties with the United States were being upgraded to a “nuclear-based alliance,” according to his office.
“Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime,” the group said in a statement later.
North Korea accused Washington and Seoul of raising tensions by “openly discussing the use of nukes.” Washington’s moves to bolster the alliance with South Korea would only make the North “go farther away from the negotiating table,” Kim Yo-jong, the sister and spokeswoman of Mr. Kim, said in a statement in the North Korean state media on Monday.
United States ballistic nuclear missile submarines made a total of 35 port calls in South Korea between 1976 and 1981, according to military analysts. The United States withdrew some of its troops stationed in South Korea in the 1970s when it was trying, as it is now, to allay South Korean fears about its defense commitment.
The United States withdrew all its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea by 1991 as part of global nuclear arms reduction efforts. In 1992, the two Koreas signed an agreement “not to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.”
The North reneged on that agreement by developing and testing nuclear weapons. Some analysts in the South ask whether South Korea has also violated the agreement by hosting an American nuclear missile submarine at one of its ports. The country’s Defense Ministry insisted that the port call did not violate the inter-Korean deal.