Defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States discussed the possible redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the South to counter North Korea's nuclear capability, government sources said Thursday.
Defense Minister Song Young-moo raised this topic during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.
These weapons were removed from South Korea in 1991 by the George Bush administration after the two Koreas signed a joint declaration on the denuclearization of the peninsula.
The defense chiefs also discussed ways to build up Seoul's military power.
This was in line with President Moon Jae-in's pledge to enhance the nation's self-defense capability.
Nuclear-powered submarines and larger warheads
Song insisted the country be allowed to develop its own nuclear-powered submarine and revise missile guidelines to allow the South to use larger warheads.
Song said nuclear submarines were the best at countering threats from North Korea's submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
Having the submarines was one of Moon's election campaign pledges. He mentioned it during a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, Aug. 7; while Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon also said Aug. 18 that the time was ripe for South Korea to review a plan to build the submarines. Song also expressed his consent to the idea during his confirmation hearing in June.
Regarding this issue, a government official said Song mentioned it when explaining effective preparedness to counter the North's SLBM threat in principle, adding he and Mattis did not talk about it further.
Another issue was the weight of the warhead for South Korea's 800-kilometer range ballistic missile. According to the missile guidelines signed in 2012, the maximum payload for the missile is set at 500 kilograms, and the South is seeking to remove this limit.
"We agreed that the payload of the warhead needs to be developed in accordance with the target," Song told reporters after the meeting.
The Moon administration had opposed the redeployment of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Moon's top security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, said at a National Assembly session Aug. 22 that the government is not considering the redeployment for now, saying, "Having tactical nuclear weapons will make South Korea lose justification in its pursuit of denuclearization of the peninsula."
However, the situation is changing as the North is close to developing a nuclear-loaded long-range missile that can hit the U.S. mainland.
The defense ministry said in a press release, "While discussing a missile guideline revision and increase of deterrence capability, Song explained the situation in Korea where security concerns are rising and some even call for the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons."
Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk also said at an Assembly meeting Thursday that Song and Mattis just mentioned the issue but did not have an in-depth discussion on it. "South Korea and the U.S. have not had a detailed discussion (on the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons), and the U.S. is not actively seeking it either," Suh said.
The two sides will discuss all these issues more during the annual Security Consultative Meeting slated for October, the ministry said.