US nuke submarine visits South Korean port, but why?

For the first time in decades, an American nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarine has appeared at a South Korean port.
Christopher McFadden
USS Michigan (SSBN-727) at a dry-dock in November 2002.

U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons 

An Ohio-class nuclear-capable US Navy ballistic missile submarine has made a call to a South Korean port for the first time in decades, CNN reports. The visit, made only days after the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its latest ballistic missile test, has raised eyebrows at home and abroad as to the purpose of it.

Upto 80 nukes

Ohio-class submarines, nicknamed "Boomers," can carry up to 20 Trident II nuclear ICBMs. Each can house four warheads, meaning a fully armed Ohio submarine could unleash about 80 nuclear warheads in total. The Trident missiles possess a range of 4,600 miles (7,400 kilometers), making them capable of striking a target in North Korea from extensive areas of the Pacific, Indian, or Arctic oceans.

The submarine's arrival is, analysts believe, only going to raise tensions on the already tense peninsula. North Korea has also threatened to shoot down US military reconnaissance aircraft, accusing them of "hostile espionage" near its territory. On Monday, Kim Yo Jong, a senior official and sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, stated that deploying a US ballistic missile submarine to the Korean peninsula would further damage the strained communication between the two nations.

“The reality before the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is not dialogue repeatedly touted by the US,” said Kim. Instead, she said, the NCG was “openly discussing the use of nukes against the DPRK and the entry of US strategic nuclear submarine into waters of the Korean Peninsula for the first time in 40-odd years," she added.

“The US should know that its bolstered extended deterrence system and excessively extended military alliance system, a threatening entity, will only make the DPRK go farther away from the negotiating table desired by it,” the statement added.

The decision to have the port call was made after US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met in Washington, D.C., in April. This led to the "Washington Declaration" which included measures to discourage North Korea from attacking South Korea. But, the submarine's arrival has been criticized as having little military value.

“Tactically, (the US and South Korea) are diminishing the sub’s most powerful asset; its stealthiness,” Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, said in April. “Militarily, (these submarines) don’t need to be anywhere near Korea in order to reach potential targets there,” Blake Herzinger, a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre, said in April.

Element of surprise lost

A US ballistic missile submarine submerged hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface and thousands of miles away from North Korea would still be capable of striking Pyongyang. However, it would be extremely difficult for North Korea to detect the submarine. According to Schuster, if someone were to arrive in South Korea for a port visit, they would need to make arrangements 24 to 48 hours in advance. However, this would make them more visible and give North Korea an advantage.

“If Kim Jong Un was looking to do a surprise strike, we’ve given him the submarine’s location and time it will be there,” Schuster added.

North Korea has since responded to the appearance of the Ohio submarine by firing off several missiles into the Sea of Japan, The Mail Online reports.

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