US Sends Sub to South Korea as Two Start New Nuclear Group

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(Bloomberg) -- A US submarine which is likely carrying nuclear weapons arrived in a South Korean port as the two allies held the first meeting of a new group that seeks to deter North Korea from using its atomic arsenal.

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The USS Kentucky, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, arrived in Busan on Tuesday, according to a statement from the US military. The visit is happening as the two nations hold the inaugural meeting of what is known as the Nuclear Consultative Group, which will discuss how best to manage America’s nuclear assets in the region.

The meeting and visit “are all parts of an integrated efforts to underscore our deepest possible commitment not only to maintenance of the peace and stability but to ensure that our nuclear deterrence remains strong, steady and dependable,” Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, told reporters in Seoul after the meeting. The nuclear group grew out of a Washington summit in April between President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol, who has worked to draw closer to the US, including on defense matters.

The group gives South Korea a greater say in how America deploys its nuclear umbrella and provide assurances it would be used to retaliate against a North Korean strike. While Yoon won a commitment from the Biden administration to strengthen its deterrence against Pyongyang, the ultimate decision on the use of nuclear weapons still remains with the US.

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The submarine is designed to carry ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, although the US usually never confirms whether any naval vessels is armed with nuclear weapons. Having a sub off the coast can reduce the time it would take for a nuclear response to North Korea to just a few minutes and North Korea has almost no defenses against US submarines.

In June, the US sent the USS Michigan, a nuclear-powered, guided-missile submarine, to South Korea for the first such visit in six years. That is the same class of vessel as the USS Kentucky, although it has been modified and can no longer carry nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

China has denounced plans to bring US submarines near the Korean Peninsula, saying this undermines the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

In a joint statement, the US and South Korea said they worked to develop information sharing protocols, with the statement including a warning to Pyongyang. “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime,” according to the joint statement.

The group would gather quarterly with the next meeting scheduled for later this year in the US, Kim Tae-hyo, the principal deputy national security adviser who led South Korea’s delegation, told reporters at the press conference with Campbell.

North Korea has denounced the group as a “nuclear war tool,” demanded the end of submarine deployments and rejected requests from the US and South Korea to return to long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

“The US should know that its bolstered extended deterrence system and excessively extended military alliance system, a threatening entity, will only make the DPRK go further away from the negotiating table,” Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean leader, said in a statement published Monday by state media, referring to the country by the abbreviation of its formal name.

North Korea last week tested a new missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland in a launch overseen by the leader Kim Jong Un. The state’s official news agency said the new Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile served as “a strong practical warning” to the US and South Korea to stop bringing American nuclear assets to the region, flying spy planes overhead and holding joint military exercises that are pushing the peninsula to the brink of war.

--With assistance from Shinhye Kang.

(Updates with details of the submarine visit.)

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