The U.S. and South Korea agreed on a strategy aimed at thwarting North Korea’s growing nuclear threat as the allies reassess their plan for South Korea to take back wartime command of its forces from the U.S.
“We know that North Korea has increased its threats, clearly, against South Korea, against the United States,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a press conference in Seoul today. “It has increased its capabilities, its missile capabilities, its three nuclear tests. So that is constantly forcing a review of our strategies.‘‘
The U.S. maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea to help defend against possible attacks from the North, 60 years after the Korean War ended without a peace treaty and cemented the division of the two countries. The U.S. was given wartime command of South Korean forces at the onset of the conflict and was set to return control to the South Koreans in 2015.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said on Sept. 3 that he doesn’t view December 2015 as the ‘‘right’’ time for his country to assume wartime control of its 640,000 troops, as South Korea remains short of perfecting the ability to independently deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. The timing of that handover is still being discussed and is ‘‘conditions-based,’’ Hagel said today.
The U.S. and South Korea have worked up a ‘‘tailored’’ response to the North Korean nuclear threat that has become ‘‘real’’ since the North tested its third nuclear device in February, Kim said at the press briefing with Hagel, following annual security talks between the allies. He didn’t elaborate.
The accord announced today ‘‘means that the allies have agreed on a plan to pre-emptively strike North Korean nuclear threats if North Korea shows signs of attack,‘‘ Yang Uk, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Korea Defense and Security Forum think tank, said by phone. ‘‘Another element of that plan probably involves a system that can shoot down nuclear-tipped missiles if the allies fail to destroy them before the North fires them.’’
South Korea plans to spend nearly 1 trillion won ($931 million) next year building a command system that would allow its military to carry out first strikes against targets in North Korea if required. The South is also spending 120 billion won to enhance missile defense next year, according to the Defense Ministry.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye said yesterday her government would hasten the development of those systems. Later in the day, the country held its biggest military parade in a decade to mark the Armed Forces Day, showcasing its latest missiles.
‘‘Missile defense has generally become a bigger and bigger issue’’ as concern grows among South Korean officials that the North is getting closer to pairing nuclear warheads with its missiles, Robert Kelly, an international relations professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, said by phone.
The U.S. has also raised concerns about North Korea’s alleged production of chemical weapons and Hagel said today their use would be ‘‘unacceptable.’’