The first U.S. nuclear ballistic submarine (SSBN) visit to South Korea in decades marked a highly symbolic yet evident display of America's will to leverage nuclear assets to counter evolving North Korean threats amid doubts over its security commitment to the Asian ally, analysts here said Tuesday.
The USS Kentucky, an Ohio-class nuclear capable submarine, made a much-anticipated port visit to a naval base in Busan, 320 kilometers southeast of Seoul, earlier in the day, marking the first U.S. SSBN visit here since the USS Robert E. Lee came here in 1981.
Its visit coincided with the inaugural session of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) in Seoul -- a culmination of the allies' efforts to beef up America's extended deterrence commitment to using the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear, to defend South Korea.
Washington's dispatch of the SSBN this week and strategic bombers earlier this year also signaled its readiness to employ key pillars of the "nuclear triad" consisting of nuclear-capable submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), according to the analysts.
"Given the earlier deployments of strategic bombers and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the SSBN visit this time was a symbolic reaffirmation of the U.S.' commitment to extended deterrence," Nam Chang-hee, professor of international politics at Inha University, said.
The visit by the strategic submarine -- capable of carrying some 20 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles with a range of around 12,000 km -- followed Pyongyang's launch of a new solid-fuel Hwasong-18 ICBM last week that rekindled security concerns.
Reassuring the South Korean public, the SSBN underscored the North's push for the ICBM program has only given new impetus to the alliance's deterrence efforts.
The creation of the NCG was announced in the Washington Declaration that President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden issued at their White House summit in April. In the declaration, the U.S. also pledged to enhance the "regular visibility" of its powerful military assets, including the SSBN.
Based on that summit declaration, South Korean officials have trumpeted the Seoul-Washington partnership as a "nuclear-based" alliance "in action" geared toward tackling the North's growing nuclear and missile threats.
The SSBN was emblematic of that nuclear-based alliance, observers said.
"The fact that the SSBN made a port visit here is a clear message that the U.S. can, for sure, mobilize nuclear arms (to defend South Korea)," Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.
He added, "Given the SSBN is one of the most formidable nuclear assets, North Korea's nuclear capabilities appear to have been dwarfed."
Such a powerful show of American force came in the midst of lingering security fears in South Korea, which had led to growing public discourse in support of South Korea's own nuclear armament or America's redeployment of tactical nuclear arms. Keen on maintaining the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the U.S. apparently balked at such ideas.
Particularly, the North's ICBM push was a major source of concern in South Korea, as some fear the recalcitrant regime's ICBMs could hold American forces at bay in case the South comes under attack -- a scenario that some say could decouple the allies.
Such fears have eased in recent months as the U.S. has highlighted its "ironclad" defense commitment to South Korea, agreed to launch the NCG and more frequently deploy strategic military assets.
"This port visit (by the SSBN) to Busan reflects the United States' ironclad commitment to the Republic of Korea for our extended deterrence guarantee," the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) said in a press release, referring to the South by its official name.
The USFK added, "It is a launch platform for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, providing the United States with its most survivable leg of the nuclear triad."
The allies' deterrence efforts have gained further traction as they are joining forces with Japan in a trilateral setting in the midst of a thaw between Seoul and Tokyo over historical rows stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea could seize on the SSBN visit to engage in yet another round of provocations.
Earlier this month, a spokesperson of the North's defense ministry warned the submarine visit "may incite the worst crisis of nuclear conflict in practice."
But it may well know that the SSBN port call hammered home a clear message: its provocations would serve as a catalyst to cement the Seoul-Washington alliance.
"The North's saber-rattling would lead to a strengthening of America's extended deterrence and the demonstration of a stronger South Korea-U.S. alliance," Kim Tae-hyung, professor of political science at Soongsil University, said.
Source: Yonhap News Agency