Why is Kentucky in South Korea

On July 18, escorted by two U.S. missile destroyers, the 170-meter long Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Kentucky docked at a pier in the port city of Busan, South Korea, at the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula.

In an effort to show the United States’ “ironclad commitment” to extending nuclear deterrence to South Korea, the United States sent a submarine capable of launching intercontinental-range nuclear missiles for the first time in 42 years. Submarine tour guests included South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol, his wife, and members of the local press.

However, North Korea responded to Kentucky’s visit with the same grace that watchers have come to expect: on the mornings of March 30 and 31, they launched two short-range ballistic missiles. The South Korean military claims that the missiles flew 340 miles in an easterly direction at a relatively low altitude of 160,000 feet. The weapons made a show of evasive maneuvers before safely crashing into the Sea of Japan.

Using typical hyperbole, North Korea’s defense ministry warned that the trip could “incite the worst crisis of nuclear conflict.” Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, said that Pyongyang will “go farther away” from the negotiating table as a result of “the foolish act and extended deterrence system and excessively extended military alliance system.”

An official in Pyongyang recently expressed anger at U.S. surveillance flights in the area, saying, “there is no guarantee that such a shocking accident as the downing of the U.S. Air Force strategic reconnaissance plane will not happen.” A Nuclear Consultation Group conference between South Korea and the United States, convened to plan a joint response to a North Korean nuclear assault, also angered the public.

The irony here is that the nuclear-armed Kentucky, which is currently visiting South Korea, is probably unable to harm North Korea while it is there. It’s true that the purpose of the symbolic tour is to influence South Korean leadership rather than North Korean leadership.

Why is Kentucky in South Korea?

The Kentucky is one of the 14 nuclear-powered SSBNs (sometimes known as “boomers”) from the Ohio-class of ballistic missile submarines still in service. To carry huge quantities of conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles, four of the original 18 were modified. About a month prior, the USS Michigan, a converted cruise missile sub (or SSGN), visited Busan for a “special warfare exercise.” A drydeck shelter, possibly used for transporting exotic spying systems, was visible on its deck during the 2017 visit, indicating that this drill took place that year.

The remaining Ohio-class SSBNs continue to carry up to 20 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles (down from 24 to comply with a New START treaty requirement), each of which is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead payload of up to eight thousand kilometers. Submarines powered by nuclear reactors can stay submerged for up to three months without making any noise.As might be expected of such potentially catastrophic weapons, the Navy typically subjects its SSBN fleet to as little public scrutiny as possible, making the Kentucky’s port visit something of an outlier.

However, in December of 1976, the USS Sam Houston buzzed over Chinhae, South Korea, becoming the first Pacific country ever visited by an American SSBN. After removing nuclear weapons from South Korean soil and putting pressure on the country to cease its nuclear weapons program, the Carter administration intended to reassure South Korea of the United States’ security commitment. Nikes-Hercules air defense missiles, MGR-1 Honest John tactical ballistic missiles, and MGM-29 Sergeant missiles were among the nukes that were removed.

After the SSBN Robert E. Lee’s final port call in March 1981, 34 more ships from the first generation of U.S. boomers paid a visit before the program was inexplicably canceled. The United States removed all of its nuclear weapons, including nuclear landmines (ADMs), nuclear artillery shells, and nuclear gravity bombs, from Korean territory in 1991. After South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol’s visit to the United States in late April, the United States first declared plans to resume periodic U.S. SSBN visits to South Korean ports, however the date of the first visit was not disclosed at the time to preserve operational secrecy.

The trip to Busan was a symbolic gesture, not a demonstration of actual military might.

First, the Kentucky’s visit to South Korea does not increase the danger it poses to North Korea because the range of its intercontinental ballistic missiles is over 7,400 miles.

The Trident II D5 nuclear missiles that the Kentucky carries are estimated to have a minimum range of 1,200 miles, making it highly unlikely that they could pose a danger to North Korea while visiting South Korea. You can’t just throw a ballistic missile into the stratosphere and expect it to make a sharp turn and land on a target a few hundred miles away when you threw it with enough force to send it across the Pacific.

Therefore, the Kentucky is a much greater threat when it is prowling in international waters than when it is docked in a South Korean port. There, it can’t stay out of sight and is within easy striking distance of North Korea’s armed forces.

In reality, South Korea is the intended destination of Kentucky’s trip. At a time when there is growing public support for South Korea acquiring its own nuclear weapons, this is meant to reassure the country’s leadership that it is reliably protected by U.S. nuclear deterrent. South Korea has a well-developed nuclear power industry for civilian use and has conducted extensive nuclear weapons research, so it could accomplish this swiftly.

As of right now, South Korea is still abiding by an agreement it made with North Korea in 1992 to not conduct nuclear tests, produce nuclear weapons, or deploy nuclear weapons.

The visit is a formal warning to North Korea for the extensive testing it has conducted over the past few years of various nuclear-weapon delivery systems. Since 2022, the country has launched over a hundred.

The Hwasong-18 solid-fuel type was tested on July 11 and exhibited the power to reach deep within the continental United States, making it the most recent addition to the list of launches. Unlike liquid-fueled missiles, which must be painstakingly gassed up before being fired, solid-fuel missiles can be fired with very little notice, giving monitoring assets far less time to prepare.

Since innumerable other warnings and shows of force over decades have failed to change North Korea’s determination, the United States is probably not so naive as to expect the Kentucky’s visit will. Rather, the visit serves as a sobering reminder to North Korea that numerous SSBNs are always present far out in the Pacific, and that the country’s military has no practical way of finding them in time to launch a preemptive strike.

The SSBN 737 Kentucky, often known as the “Thoroughbred of the Fleet,” was christened with bourbon upon its launch in 1990 from the Electric Boat facility in Groton, Connecticut.

The boomer Kentucky’s diving planes were damaged, and the Los Angeles-class attack submarine San Juan had its forward ballast tanks breached, when they collided during a training mission in 1998. Thanks to the lack of casualties, San Juan is still active today.Meanwhile, the USS Kentucky returned to service with Submarine Squadron 17 (SUBRON 17) of the United States Pacific Fleet at Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington, after undergoing its mid-life overhaul and nuclear refueling between 2012 and 2015.