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(News Focus) U.S. unlikely to permanently deploy strategic assets to S. Korea: experts

2016/10/21 19:17

By Choi Kyong-ae

SEOUL, Oct. 21 (Yonhap) -- The United States appears unlikely to permanently deploy its strategic military assets to South Korea due mainly to concerns of high operational costs and strong opposition from China, experts here said Friday.

The U.S. has temporarily sent strategic assets, such as nuclear-capable B-52 and B-1B bombers, to South Korea this year in a show of force following the North's two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches, but perceptions have grown among South Koreans that such one-off missions are not enough.

Some here have called for permanent deployment of U.S. strategic weapons assets in South Korea, citing evolving threats posed by the North's nuclear and missile programs. Lawmakers, such as former ruling Saenuri Party floor leader Won Yoo-cheol, have persistently argued that Seoul needs to gain a "balance of terror" by going nuclear. The lawmakers said a nuclear-armed Seoul will be able to deter a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.

Still, many security and defense experts said a permanent deployment of U.S. strategic military assets could neutralize Seoul's denuclearization policy. The U.S. had deployed tactical nuclear weapons in the South, but it pulled them out of its Asian ally as the two Koreas adopted a joint declaration on denuclearization in 1991.

"The U.S. didn't accept the permanent deployment request from South Korea in annual defense ministers' talks held this week in Washington because of this reason," North Korean expert Cheong Seong-chang at the Sejong Institute told Yonhap News Agency.

In this photo taken on Oct. 21, 2016 (Thursday in U.S. time) and provided by South Korea's defense ministry, South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo (R) and his U.S. counterpart Ash Carter hold a joint press conference after their annual defense talks in Washington. (Yonhap) In this photo taken on Oct. 21, 2016 (Thursday in U.S. time) and provided by South Korea's defense ministry, South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo (R) and his U.S. counterpart Ash Carter hold a joint press conference after their annual defense talks in Washington. (Yonhap)

The scholar said as the U.S. has gradually reduced its defense budget, it will be financially burdensome to deploy its strategic assets on or near the Korean Peninsula.

"The U.S. prefers to operate those assets on a rotational basis to flexibly respond to conflicts in the Middle East, the South and East China Sea, if necessary," he pointed out.

China remains another major obstacle as the North's closest ally will be "definitely irritated" by permanent deployment of any U.S. nuclear-armed weapons in South Korea, said Kim Dong-yeob, a professor at Kyungnam University's North Korean studies school.

China has even claimed that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, slated to be deployed in South Korea by 2017, could be used against it, despite repeated assurances from Washington and Seoul that the system is aimed only at deterring North Korean threats.

In Wednesday's "two plus two" alliance talks that brought together top diplomats and defense chiefs from South Korea and the United States, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter again emphasized the anti-missile system "would not be directed towards any third party nations."

   "His remarks clearly indicate the U.S.' intention not to irritate China again by choosing to permanently deploy its strategic assets in South Korea," Kim said. "What the U.S. really wants in terms of joint defense efforts against North Korea's provocations is South Korea's decision to enter its broader missile defense system that also includes Japan."

   In the communique, Seoul and Washington shared the understanding of the importance of trilateral defense cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

The missile defense (MD) is a sensitive issue because it can alienate neighboring countries, such as China and Russia, which South Korea wants to maintain good relations with. China, in particular, is Seoul's biggest trading partner and a key player in Seoul's drive to get North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

The Kyungnam University professor then predicted that growing calls for the Seoul government to develop its own nuclear weapons as a deterrent will not be answered by the U.S.

In Washington, what South Korea got from the annual defense talks with the U.S. was the latter's reaffirmation of its existing stance that it will provide "extended deterrence" of the former to dissuade any military attacks from the North and its consideration of permanent deployment of its strategic assets to the South, the experts emphasized.

"Extended deterrence" refers to the commitment to use nuclear weapons, if the need arises, to deter attacks on allies. The U.S. has provided extended deterrence and the "nuclear umbrella" to South Korea since 1991.

This undated captured image from Yonhap News TV shows South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo (R) and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in a press briefing on their agreements in the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) held in Washington on Thursday. (Yonhap) This undated captured image from Yonhap News TV shows South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo (R) and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in a press briefing on their agreements in the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) held in Washington on Thursday. (Yonhap)

In a joint press conference held at the Pentagon on Thursday, the allies said they discussed a lot of options, including permanently deploying U.S. strategic assets on a rotational basis, to provide extended deterrence to the defense of its Asian allies.

South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo said, "We'll conduct a review (of options) going forward." His U.S. counterpart Carter said the two sides "discussed a number of ways that extended deterrents can be further strengthened."

   Experts said the two allies will continue their discussions on measures to deter the North's nuclear and missile ambitions down the road, with the U.S. reiterating its firm and unwavering commitment to the defense of South Korea.

"As the North is widely expected to deploy its powerful medium-range ballistic missiles that could hit the U.S. territory of Guam as early as next year, the allies should realize the cold reality facing them," Kim said.

This year alone, the rogue regime has conducted eight Musudan missile tests. Of the eight, a missile launched in June flew 400 kilometers and reached an altitude of over 1,400 km.

kyongae.choi@yna.co.kr

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