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South Korea and the US are discussing nuclear drills as tensions with the North flare, Yoon says

South Korea and the US are discussing nuclear drills as tensions with the North flare, Yoon says

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SEOUL, Jan 2 (Reuters) – South Korea and the United States are discussing possible joint exercises using U.S. nuclear assets, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called the South his “undisputed enemy” in a flare-up transboundary tension.

Yun’s comments in a newspaper interview published on Monday came after he called for “preparation for war” with “huge” capabilities after a year marked by the North’s record number of missile tests and a North Korean drone incursion into the South last week.

“Nuclear weapons belong to the United States, but planning, information sharing, exercises and training should be conducted jointly by South Korea and the United States,” Yun said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

The newspaper quoted Yoon as saying that joint planning and exercises would be aimed at more effectively implementing US “extended deterrence” and that Washington was also “quite positive” about the idea.

The term “extended deterrence” refers to the ability of the US military, particularly its nuclear forces, to deter attacks against US allies.

A Pentagon spokesman said: “We have nothing to announce today” when asked about Yun’s comments, adding that the alliance remains “rock solid”.

Yun’s remarks came a day after North Korea’s state media reported that its leader Kim had called for the development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and an “exponential increase” in the country’s nuclear arsenal.

At a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party last week, Kim said South Korea had now become the North’s “undisputed enemy” and laid out new military goals, hinting at another year of intense weapons tests and tensions.

Inter-Korean ties have long been strained, but have been further soured since Yun took office in May, pledging a tougher stance toward the North.

On Sunday, North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile off its east coast in a rare weapons test late on New Year’s Eve, following three ballistic missiles launched on Saturday.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said the projectiles were fired from its super-large multiple launch missile system, which Kim said “South Korea is generally within strike range and capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads.” .

The North’s race to advance its nuclear and missile programs has renewed the debate over South Korea’s nuclear weapons, but Yoon said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo that preserving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains important.

To better deal with the North’s growing threats, South Korea’s military said Monday it has created a new directorate under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to counter the North’s nuclear and weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

North Korea, meanwhile, reshuffled its military leadership at a party meeting at the end of the year, firing Park Jong-chong, the second-ranking military official behind Kim, and replacing his defense minister and army chief of staff, according to state media.

The reason for Park’s change was not immediately known, although Pyongyang regularly updates its leadership and used the party event to announce major personnel changes.

Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said this year could be a “crisis year” with military tensions on the Korean Peninsula rising beyond 2017, when Pyongyang first launched an intercontinental ballistic missile and also carried out its sixth nuclear test.

“North Korea’s tough stance … and aggressive weapons development, when met with South Korea-US joint exercises and a proportionate response, could raise tensions instantly, and we cannot rule out what looks like a regional conflict when the two sides they have a misunderstanding of the situation,” Hong said.

Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi; Additional reporting by David Brunstrom in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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