US officials defend sub-nuclear visit to South Korea amid rising tensions

U.S. officials on Friday defended a visit by nuclear submarines to South Korea, as fiery rhetoric and missile launches from North Korea and the visit of a U.S. soldier to North Korea earlier this week heighten tensions on the Korean peninsula.

In an interview with CNN on Friday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that while US officials “have made it clear to Pyongyang that we are ready to sit down without preconditions to denuclearize the peninsula,” the deployment of a nuclear submarine and other assets was necessary to “ensure that we have sufficient military capability in the region to protect our South Korean allies and, quite frankly, the 38,000 American troops and their families who found on the Korean Peninsula”.

The USS Kentucky, a nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarine, arrived in Busan, South Korea, on Monday for a scheduled port visit. The visit, the first time in decades that a nuclear submarine has surfaced in South Korea, has drawn strong rebukes from North Korean officials over the past week.

Even before the submarine appeared in Busan, North Korean officials were warning the United States against “senseless” actions, with Workers’ Party leader Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, telling state media on Tuesday that North Korea had launched a “military offensive” in response to U.S. aggression.

On Wednesday, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea. In a statement on Thursday, North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam said the presence of the submarine “may fall under the conditions of the use of nuclear weapons.”

South Korean officials denounced the North Korean launches as a “major provocation”.

US officials said earlier this week that the submarine’s deployment was part of its “extended deterrence” policy.

“This stopover in Busan reflects the United States’ ironclad commitment to the Republic of Korea for our extended deterrence guarantee, and complements the many exercises, training, operations and other military cooperation activities conducted by the Strategic Forces to ensure they are available and ready to operate around the world at all times,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a press release Tuesday.

The dispute over the submarine comes as the United States, the United Nations Command led by the United States and Swedish interlocutors of the United States request information from Pyongyang about Travis King, the American soldier who entered North Korea during a civilian visit to the demilitarized zone on Tuesday. In a virtual panel on Thursday, Kirby told reporters that the United States had not received any information about King, either through Sweden or other channels.

US officials maintain they are still working to obtain information from North Korea about King’s well-being, despite Pyongyang’s silence. On a Thursday aboard the Air Force, White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton told reporters that the US government had reached out through “several channels” to speak with North Korean officials.

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