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South Korea, U.S. sharpen deterrence plans over North Korean nuclear threat

The Associated Press

South Korea and the United States in mid-November 2023 updated a bilateral security agreement to more effectively counter North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats.

The move followed high-level talks in Seoul, South Korea, where the allies also discussed enhancing trilateral defense exercises with Japan and improving information-sharing on North Korean missile launches.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Seoul for annual talks with South Korean officials, including Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, which were focused on boosting nuclear deterrence against North Korea. They also discussed coordination on geopolitical issues including Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine and the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) regional assertiveness, Austin said.

During the 55th Security Consultative Meeting, Austin and Shin signed an updated version of the allies’ Tailored Deterrence Strategy agreement, which was revised for the first time in a decade to address the growing threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Shin said the document states that the U.S. would mobilize its full range of military capabilities, including nuclear assets, to defend South Korea in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack. He also said the document will provide a template for the allies to strategize how South Korea could assist U.S. nuclear operations in such events with its conventional capabilities.

“Our deterrence commitment to the ROK remains ironclad — that includes a full range of our nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities,” Austin said at a news conference, referring to South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.

Austin said the recent deployments of U.S. military assets to South Korea, including a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber and aircraft carriers, demonstrated the U.S.’s commitment to South Korea’s defense. He said another U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group will visit the region soon.

Shin said the allies, who conducted their largest live-fire training in 2023, will further expand combined military exercises to deter and respond to North Korean threats.

The nations also are strengthening security cooperation with Japan, including joint exercises and defense planning, in response to North Korea’s intensifying weapons development and threats of nuclear conflict.

Austin and Shin also held trilateral talks with Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara, who participated via video. The leaders agreed to start a real-time, information-sharing arrangement on North Korean missile launches in December 2023 and to establish multiyear plans to enhance trilateral military exercises, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.

Austin also met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who expressed satisfaction with the increased bilateral consultations over nuclear deterrence plans and the more frequent deployment of U.S. military assets to the Korean Peninsula, which he described as crucial for deterring Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threats.

Yoon also stressed that the allies should be prepared for any type of provocation by the North, including a “Hamas-style surprise attack,” and insisted that North Korea was “directly and indirectly” involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine and Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel, according to his office.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said North Korea is providing munitions and military equipment to Russia. South Korean officials also have said that Hamas may have used North Korean-made rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons during its October 2023 assault on Israel, and that the North could be considering selling weapons to other militant groups in the Middle East.

Austin’s meetings in South Korea followed a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who also met with Yoon and other South Korean leaders to discuss the North Korean threat and potential arms cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow.

South Korean and U.S. officials say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in return for providing munitions to Russia, could seek Moscow’s help to upgrade his regime’s military capabilities, possibly including technical assistance on Pyongyang’s failed efforts to launch its first military spy satellite.

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