US to respond to growing North Korea nuclear threat by increasing military presence in South Korea

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The US will accelerate its deployment of advanced weapons including fighter warplanes and bombers on the Korean peninsula, the country’s defence secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday after arriving for talks in South Korea.

Washington is looking to bolster its joint training and operational planning with its ally as the region witnesses the rising threat of nuclear test and missile launches from North Korea.

The US defence secretary met with his South Korean counterpart Lee Jong-Sup in Seoul and “pledged to further expand and bolster the level and scale of this year’s combined exercises and training,” according to a statement from the US Department of Defense.

“To this end, the two leaders concurred on the need to take into account changes in the security environment, including the DPRK’s [North Korea] recent steps with respect to its nuclear and missile programmes, to strengthen combined exercises and training, including the upcoming combined bilateral exercises,” the statement added.

The two leaders “agreed to expand the scope and scale of combined field training exercises and to conduct a large-scale combined joint fires demonstration this year”, it added.

Both the ministers vowed to continue to “deploy US strategic assets in a timely and coordinated manner in the future”.

Mr Austin and Mr Lee also spoke about an upcoming simulated exercise between the allies in February, which is aimed at sharpening their response if North Korea uses nuclear weapons.

Experts monitoring tensions in the region say North Korea has been building towards a full-scale nuclear test by conducting close to 100 short- and long-range missile launches last year.

The top US defence official’s visit comes at a time when South Korea has publicly raised its concerns about Pyongyang’s escalatory test launches as well as provocative statements from Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Dozens of missiles tested by the country in 2022 were confirmed to be nuclear capable and having the potential to strike targets as far afield as the US mainland.

Reassuring the South of the US’s continued military backing, Mr Austin said: “We deployed fifth-generation aircraft, F-22s and F-35s, we deployed a carrier strike group to visit the peninsula, you can look for more of that kind of activity going forward.”

The US’s commitment to protecting its allies with its full range of military capabilities, including nuclear ones, remains “ironclad”, he added.

This week’s visit is expected to spark tensions in the coming months as Mr Kim had pledged to deliver on promises over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions for 2023.

In an address at the end of last year, he had called for an “exponential increase” in nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea and the development of more powerful long-range missiles designed to reach the US mainland.

Analysts say Mr Kim is attempting to force the US to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiate urgently needed economic concessions from a position of strength.