Combined U.S.-ROK naval power poised to deter North Korea’s provocations

Combined U.S.-ROK naval power poised to deter North Korea’s provocations

Felix Kim

North Korea has raised the threat level in the Indo-Pacific, particularly on the Korean Peninsula, with repeated provocations of missile launches and talk of ballistic nuclear tests. The combined naval capabilities of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and United States militaries are positioned to deter these threats, say officials and analysts, as demonstrated by combined exercises involving powerful combat vessels armed with mobile missile batteries and carrying advanced attack aircraft.

“North Korea is upgrading its nuclear program and the problem is with its medium-range ballistic missile or short-range ballistic missile developments,” Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told FORUM. “All of them can carry tactical nuclear weapons and their range is not only on the Korean Peninsula or Japan, but also on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Indo-Pacific region.”

North Korea had conducted 31 missile tests by the beginning of June 2022, and was preparing to conduct a test detonation of a nuclear device, according to the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The need for deterrence from South Korea and the U.S. has been spurred by the quantity of Pyongyang’s provocations and the destructive potential they represent, as well as the recent unwillingness from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia to help curb them, Dr. Kim Jae Yeop, senior researcher at Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy at South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University, told FORUM.

“Naval power presents a strong strategic deterrent by its characteristic endurance and massive power presence capabilities,” Kim said.

Such power was on display in early June 2022 when the ROKNavy’s 7,600-ton Sejong the Great-class Aegis destroyer, furnished with SM-2 surface-to-air missiles, and accompanied by another destroyer and the 14,500-ton Marado amphibious assault ship, pictured far left, joined the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan, pictured second from left, and its strike group for joint drills. The forces conducted the exercises in international waters southeast of Okinawa, Japan.

The combined force, capable of launching land-attack missiles and F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, is “capable of exercising a decisive military retaliation against North Korea,” Kim said. By projecting overwhelming military power and the readiness of the ROK-U.S. alliance, he added, such exercises make clear to Pyongyang that it cannot make political gains with provocations involving potential weapons of mass destruction.

“South Korea and the U.S. have solidified the determination to decisively respond to any kind of provocations by North Korea through the combined exercises with the carrier strike group,” the ROK’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement released during the exercise.

The decision to broaden the scope and size of joint military drills and exercises to deter future aggression from Pyongyang was announced by U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at their May 2022 summit in Seoul. President Biden, Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio reaffirmed this stance at their trilateral meeting at the NATO Summit in Madrid on June 29, 2022, according to the White House.

Two ROK destroyers are scheduled to launch SM-2 missiles in a live-fire drill when the navies of Japan, ROK and the U.S. exercise together during the Pacific Dragon ballistic missile search and tracking exercise in Hawaii from August 1 to 14, The Korea Herald newspaper reported.

In addition to directly deterring Pyongyang, Kim said, such allied displays of naval power could potentially persuade Beijing and Moscow to use their influence to halt North Korean provocations by sending a reminder “that bellicose actions by Pyongyang are basically responsible for strategic instability on the Korean Peninsula.”


Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.