A day that was supposed to celebrate strengthened nuclear coordination between the United States and South Korea was complicated by an American soldier who crossed into North Korea at the border, apparently on his own volition.
The highly unusual move occurred as senior U.S. and South Korean officials were set to face the media Tuesday afternoon in Seoul to discuss the inaugural meeting of the long-lauded Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG).
The establishment of the group was first announced in April as part of the Washington Declaration, in which the leaders of the two countries laid out plans to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence against North Korea's nuclear threats.
White House Indo-Pacific National Security Coordinator Kurt Campbell characterized the efforts going into the NCG as unequaled since "the early periods of the Cold War."
He led a 30-person delegation, which included nuclear experts, to engage with his South Korean counterpart, Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo, on the scope of the consultative relationship.
Creating workstreams on nuclear consultation in crises and contingencies, integrating the U.S. nuclear military capability with South Korea's conventional capability, and security and information-sharing protocols were among agenda items discussed during the five-hour meeting. It was also attended by the two countries' foreign affairs officials and defense officials at the assistant secretary level, according to a joint statement.
The statement reiterated that any North Korean nuclear attack against the U.S. or its allies would "result in the end of that regime," and that a nuclear attack against South Korea would "be met with a swift, overwhelming and decisive response."
Kim told reporters the meeting convinced him that Seoul need not pursue its own nuclear weapons development, as the NCG offered "sufficient and assured extended deterrence."
The two sides agreed to hold quarterly meetings at the working group and principal levels, with the next principal meeting planned for later this year. A trilateral summit among the U.S., South Korea and Japan is being planned for August.
Indicating it was crucial to send a clear warning to Pyongyang, Campbell described the arrival of the USS Kentucky, the first U.S. nuclear-armed submarine to visit South Korea since the 1980s, as a manifestation of U.S. commitments.
Message from North Korea
North Korea last Wednesday fired its new solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-18, for a second time, even as its state media churned out a string of aggressive statements against Washington, accusing it of flying illegal reconnaissance missions and warning it against the dispatch of a nuclear missile submarine.
In confirming the arrival Tuesday of the USS Kentucky at the port city of Busan, the U.S. military described it as a "launch platform for submarine-launched ballistic missiles [which provides] the United States with its most survivable leg of the nuclear triad," given its ability to operate anywhere in the world.
The submarine can carry 20 Trident II ballistic missiles, the South Korean military explained in a separate release, boasting a range of some 12,000 kilometers.
"Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are the most powerful nuclear assets in the world," said Park Won Gon, professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "North Korea's solid-fuel Hwasong-18 ICBM is no match to the SSBN. … North Korea is going to realize the imbalance between its nuclear capabilities and the U.S.'"
North Korea ready to talk?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong, widely viewed as his top spokesperson, issued a statement on the eve of the strategic nuclear submarine's arrival, citing the impending deployment among a laundry list of "realities" Pyongyang faced to justify its nuclear weapons program.
Kim Yo Jong said the Korean peninsula was at a state "far beyond the acute confrontation between [North Korea] and the U.S. in 2017," adding that the "worry the U.S. witnessed" was just the start of North Korea's "already-launched military offensive."
The detailed, lengthy statement published on state media KCNA — which lamented the temporary nature of U.S. commitments — nevertheless featured a wish list of actions that could indicate North Korea's first suggestion of an interest in rekindling talks with Washington, analysts say.
Among those mentioned were a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, a suspension of joint military exercises and sanctions relief.
"This is the first time in three years that North Korea has come up with very clear conditions, agendas, that they want to discuss with the U.S.," Park said, explaining the statements must be read between the lines.
"The Hwasong-18 ICBM could serve in a similar way as did the Hwasong-15 launched in November 2017," Park said, referring to the peak of a crisis year that saw Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump engage in rhetorical escalation ("mentally deranged U.S. dotard" to Trump's "fire and fury"), only for Pyongyang to reverse course and send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics by early 2018.
"This appears to be a deja vu situation that North Korea is trying to create," Park said.
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.