S. Korea, US agree to expand joint exercises, bolster extended deterrence

Posted on : 2022-05-23 16:53 KST Modified on : 2022-05-23 16:53 KST
They also affirmed that the US would send strategic military assets to South Korea in a timely manner as necessary
President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a summit with US President Joe Biden at the presidential office in Yongsan on May 21, 2022. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a summit with US President Joe Biden at the presidential office in Yongsan on May 21, 2022. (presidential office pool photo)

In their summit on Saturday, the leaders of South Korea and the US agreed to expand joint exercises and drills and to flesh out the extended deterrence that the US has committed to provide. The two leaders reconfirmed that the US means to make its “nuclear umbrella” more practical and strengthen its joint defense posture with South Korea to counter the growing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

Extended deterrence, also known as the nuclear umbrella, is the concept of the US protecting allied countries from nuclear threats with its military capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal.

“Considering the evolving threat posed by [North Korea], both leaders agree to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula,” South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden said in a joint statement adopted following their summit.

When asked for more details, South Korea’s National Security Office mentioned normalizing joint exercises with the US, reconfirming the commitment to a conditional transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of allied forces, and strengthening security cooperation in areas including outer space and cyberspace.

Normalizing joint exercises with the US means that the field maneuvers involving large numbers of troops and equipment that the two countries suspended in 2019 could be resumed as soon as this coming August. That’s expected to provoke a backlash from North Korea, which says those exercises symbolize a “policy of hostility” toward the North and considers their suspension as a prerequisite for improving relations with the South and with Washington.

Reconfirming the commitment to a conditional transfer of OPCON appears to mean that Yoon won’t rush to complete the OPCON transfer during his time in office. Stronger cooperation in outer space and cyberspace indicates that South Korea and the US will respond together to hacking and other kinds of cyber threats from North Korea.

“There was also a discussion of whether we should have various forms of joint drills in order to prepare against a possible [North Korean] nuclear attack,” Yoon said in a joint press conference following the summit. That kind of joint drill is likely to appear in the operational plan that the two sides will be finalizing early next year.

The joint statement specified that joint exercises would be taking place on an expanded scale “on and around the Korean Peninsula.” If that scale broadens to include the waters around the Korean Peninsula, it could lead to discussions about trilateral military exercises including the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

The US-made B-52 is a strategic bomber made to carry nuclear weapons. (Yonhap News)
The US-made B-52 is a strategic bomber made to carry nuclear weapons. (Yonhap News)

In the statement, Biden affirmed “the US extended deterrence commitment to [South Korea] using the full range of US defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities.” Defense ministers from the two countries have used similar language when defining extended deterrence every year since 2009, but this is the first time it has been mentioned in a summit.

“The leaders were simultaneously sending a message of deterrence to North Korea and a message of reassurance to the Korean public,” Korea’s National Security Office explained.

Biden and Yoon reconfirmed that the US would deploy strategic assets at the appropriate time as a means of extended deterrence. That could mean sending long-range strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula to send Pyongyang a message of nuclear deterrence.

In addition, the two countries agreed to “reactivate the high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group at the earliest date” to discuss a specific action plan for extended deterrence.

This consultation group is a channel between the two countries’ number two diplomats and defense officials that was launched in December 2016, under former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. But the group’s activities were suspended in 2018 as dialogue blossomed between South and North Korea and between the US and North Korea.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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