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(LEAD) S. Korea, U.S. sign contingency plan against N. Korean nukes

2013/10/02 14:18

(ATTN: UPDATES with Hagel's comments in paras 12, 16-17, 21; ADDS photo)

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Oct. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States on Wednesday signed a joint military strategy that outlines how to handle the North Korean nuclear threat and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to strengthen the American nuclear umbrella on the Korean Peninsula in light of the communist state's third nuclear test.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and his U.S. counterpart, Chuck Hagel, officially signed the bilateral "Tailored Deterrence Strategy against North Korea Nuclear and other WMD Threats" during their annual Security Consultative Meeting.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) during the annual Security Consultative Meeting held in Seoul on Oct. 2, 2013. (Yonhap)

The Pentagon chief reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support deterrence capabilities with its full range of military capabilities, including the nuclear umbrella, conventional strike and missile defense.

"This strategy establishes a strategic alliance framework for tailoring deterrence against key North Korean nuclear threat scenarios across armistice and wartime, and strengthens the integration of alliance capabilities to maximize their deterrence effects," the joint communique said.

"The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States are committed to maintaining close consultation on deterrence matters to ensure that extended deterrence for the ROK remains credible, capable and enduring."

   The plan details contingency counter-actions against various nuclear provocations, calling for pre-emptive strikes against the origin of attack if the North were to use its nuclear weapons, a senior ministry official said, without elaborating on the details of the classified military information.

When Pyongyang raised tension with bellicose rhetoric in April, Seoul's defense ministry unveiled a new contingency plan that allows its military to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea if it shows signs of an imminent nuclear or missile attack on the South.

South Korea's nuclear program was brought to a halt in 1992 when it signed a denuclearization treaty. The U.S., which stations 28,500 troops in the country, provides a nuclear umbrella to deter North Korea's threat under a bilateral security alliance.

Working-level officials of the two nations have worked together to make the nuclear contingency plan while the communist state's young leader Kim Jong-un continues to advance its nuclear program in defiance of the U.N. resolutions.

North Korea conducted a third atomic test in February and declared it had achieved progress in securing a functioning atomic arsenal. Seoul believes Pyongyang has made considerable progress in developing a fairly robust nuclear program in the past three years and is capable of making atomic weapons at any time.

Still, it is widely thought that the North does not have the capacity to build a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile to strike the U.S. mainland, although Pyongyang threatened a nuclear strike against South Korea and the U.S. in anger of their joint drills in March.

"The miniaturization issue is a part of technology that North Korea is developing, which further complicates threats on this peninsula, and the region and the world," Hagel said, without elaborating on the North's nuclear capacity.

The two sides also agreed to cooperate to bolster interoperability of the alliances command and control system for missile defense against North Korea, which is believed to have over 1,000 missiles with varying capabilities.

Kim pledged to continue to build the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system to arm his nation with the ability to track and shoot down the North's low-flying, short- and medium-range missiles.

It was in line with the remark by President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday that Seoul and Washington will closely cooperate to establish missile defense and pre-emptive strike capabilities at an early date to make the communist North realize that its nuclear weapons and missiles are "useless."

   In regard to the joint missile shield, Hagel put great emphasis on interoperability of the two nation's systems to effectively counter threats posed by North Korea.

"We're working with the Republic of Korea on their missile defense system. These don't have to be identical as long as they are interoperable," he said. "We want systems that work together and that are interoperable. It involves a lot of command and control, which is complicated."

   The two sides also evaluated the growing security threat on the peninsula and capabilities of South Korean forces to determine whether Seoul is ready to regain its wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington as scheduled in December 2015, but no final decision was made on the timing during the Wednesday meeting.

"The transition of OPCON should sustain and enhance the alliance's combined defense posture and capabilities, and support both the alliance's bilateral defense priorities and its future development," the statement said. "(The two sides) decided to regularly assess and review the security situation on the Korean Peninsula ... and to continue consultations on this issue."

   In this regard, Hagel reaffirmed the continuing U.S. commitment to provide specific "bridging capabilities" until South Korea obtains "full self-defense capabilities."

   "Our discussions have been ongoing and will continue regarding OPCON transfer. It has been conditions based," Hagel said during a joint press conference. "I'm very optimistic we will have an agreement on those conditions, and we will get to where we need to be before the OPCON transfer."

   Kim said Seoul is committed to developing critical military capabilities necessary to assume the lead of the combined defense, without elaborating on a specific timeframe for the transition.

South Korea agreed to take over the wartime operational command of all troops in December 2015, which was already delayed from a 2012 deadline.

South Korea handed over its OPCON to the U.S.-led U.N. troops during the Korean War and regained peacetime OPCON in 1994.

Currently, the South Korean military remains in command under normal armistice circumstances, but the U.S. commander would assume OPCON of the two nations' forces if war broke out.

South Korea has gradually been building its indigenous missile program in recent years to prepare the transition, but the mid-term plan has become more urgent with rising concerns over the latest development in the North's nuclear program.

Seoul's defense ministry has assigned a budget for building the KAMD and "kill chain," a comprehensive set of missile systems designed to detect signs of impending missile or nuclear attacks and launch pre-emptive strikes, for implementation next year. The budget is currently pending in parliament for approval.