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South Korea's president-elect wants U.S. nuclear bombers, submarines to return

South Korea's president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a news conference to address his relocation plans of the presidential office, in Seoul, March 20, 2022. [Reuters]

Advisers to South Korea's president-elect sought redeployment of U.S. strategic assets, such as nuclear bombers and submarines, to the Korean peninsula during talks held on a visit to Washington, one of the advisers said on Wednesday.

The team of foreign policy and security aides to incoming president Yoon Suk-yeol met U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan as Yoon seeks a more constant security presence to deter threats from North Korea as it steps up weapons tests.

"Deploying the strategic assets is an important element of reinforcing the extended deterrence, and the issue naturally came up during the discussions," Park Jin, a four-term lawmaker who led the delegation, told reporters.

He added that both sides explored ways to bolster U.S. extended nuclear deterrence at the talks on coordinating efforts against the North Korean threat held on a trip that also aimed to secure an early summit with President Joe Biden. 

A White House official asked about such talks, and whether Washington supported the deployments to South Korea, responded that both sides had "discussed generally" the U.S. defence commitments, but did not elaborate.

Yoon, set to be sworn in on May 10, is mapping out his foreign policy agenda after winning the March 9 election, just as tension flares after neighbouring North Korea launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last month. 

The deployment of U.S. bombers, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines is part of Yoon's election plank promising to "respond firmly" to the North's threats. 

JOINT DRILLS

Yoon has also vowed to "normalise" joint military drills with the United States that were scaled back under outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in, in a bid to placate Pyongyang and resume stalled talks to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons.

North Korea has long denounced the exercises as a rehearsal for war, and the allies have reduced field training and shunned the use of major weapons such as bombers and air carriers, focusing instead on computer simulations.

But Park did not elaborate when asked about plans for regular spring exercises, which domestic media have said could include nuclear bombers for the first time in nearly five years. 

"We agreed that what's most important is to maintain deterrence so that we can strongly respond to any possible North Korean provocations," he said, whether ICBM launches or psychological warfare in the form of verbal attacks.

The delegation invited Biden to visit Seoul when he travels to Asia to meet the Quad grouping of nations, which also includes Japan, Australia and India, Park added.

He also delivered a letter to Biden from Yoon highlighting his "solid willingness and vision" to advance ties not only on North Korea but also on economic security and other issues, he said.

Park's name is being floated as a strong candidate to be foreign minister, along with that of Cho Tae-yong, a lawmaker of Yoon's conservative People Power Party (PPP) who was also in the delegation.