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U.S. to send nuclear submarines in new pledge to protect South Korea from North's threats

President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk Yeol, will sign the agreement in Washington on Wednesday, officials said.
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The U.S. will deploy nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea for the first time in decades — part of a new agreement that will signal Washington's commitment to defend Seoul against rising nuclear threats from North Korea, U.S. officials said.

The plan to dock the ballistic missile submarines in South Korea, which hasn't happened since the 1980s, headlines an effort to make U.S. deterrence against Kim Jong Un's regime "more visible," senior administration officials said. The U.S. will also vow to give its ally a greater role in any response to a potential nuclear attack.

President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk Yeol, were to announce the agreement Wednesday in Washington, the officials said.

Yoon Suk Yeol and Joe Biden during a State Arrival Ceremony at the White House
Yoon Suk Yeol and Joe Biden at a state arrival ceremony at the White House on Wednesday.Andrew Harnik / AP

The Washington Declaration, as it’s known, won’t involve the U.S.’s deploying nuclear weapons to the South, as it did during the Cold War, the officials said. Instead the U.S. will increase the number of military assets it sends to the country on a temporary basis, such as a nuclear-armed submarine and bombers.

The officials likened it to cooperation with European allies in the Cold War during similar periods of threat.

The declaration would also improve joint training, information-sharing and military exercises in “deterring and defending” against the North, an official said. 

The announcement is "purely symbolic" and intended "to reassure the South Korean public" that the U.S. still has its back, said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California. But the commitments "don’t have any military value."

Many South Koreans appear to need reassuring.

Polling shows more and more want their government to develop nuclear weapons of its own, driven by questions over whether a Washington distracted by the growing clash with China would protect them in a conflict with the nuclear-armed North.

The U.S. would oppose such a development, also barred by international treaty.

The new steps are designed to be "seen by the Korean public," and the agreement also sets out a new framework through which the government in Seoul can have more of a voice in any response in a crisis, an official said.

In return, an official said, South Korea would reaffirm its commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bars countries from seeking nuclear weapons.

The officials briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement.

North Korea isn’t a signatory to the treaty, and in recent years under leader Kim it has made strides to develop its suspected arsenal of around 20 nuclear weapons.

North Korea launched its first solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile this month in what analysts say is a meaningful advance in the country’s efforts to build a nuclear arsenal that is harder to detect and capable of threatening anywhere in the continental U.S.

U.S. and South Korean officials also say North Korea is preparing for its seventh nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017.

Yoon, a former prosecutor who was elected as South Korea’s leader last year, arrived Monday in Washington for a six-day state visit as the U.S. and South Korea mark the 70th anniversary of their alliance, which dates to the end of the Korean War. He and Biden were to hold a summit Wednesday, and Yoon will address a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday.

A leak of classified Defense Department documents shows the U.S. has been gathering intelligence on its southeast Asian ally. Both sides have said much of the information is inaccurate, without providing further specifics.

In an interview with NBC News' Lester Holt, Yoon said it wouldn’t "shake the ironclad trust" between his country and Washington — although he acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation.

Yoon's is the first U.S. state visit by a South Korean leader in 12 years and the first by an Indo-Pacific leader during the Biden administration, which is focusing more intensely on the strategically important region as it tries to counter growing Chinese influence.

Yoon’s visit follows the largest U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises in years, aimed largely at countering the North Korea’s nuclear threat.

The two countries are also stepping up their security coordination with Japan, holding trilateral defense talks in Washington this month. Biden is also expected to encourage Yoon to continue improving ties with Tokyo, with which Seoul has long had a fraught relationship.