S.Korea, US agree to update war plans against growing N. Korean threats

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S.Korea, US agree to update war plans against growing N. Korean threats
South Korea’s Defense Minister Suh Wook (R) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) at a joint press conference right after the 53rd Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) held in Seoul on Dec. 2.The South Korean and US defense chiefs on Thursday agreed to update war plans against Pyongyang’s growing missile and nuclear threats and to conduct a long-postponed assessment required for Seoul to regain wartime operational control, or OPCON.

The announcement comes after South Korea’s Defense Minister Suh Wook and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hosted the 53rd Security Consultative Meeting the same morning in Seoul.

Both sides issued the joint statement, which includes the alliance’s coordinated, comprehensive approach to threats posed by North Korea and China in the Indo-Pacific region upon the outcome of the annual defense ministerial meeting.

Secretary Austin said Seoul and Washington discussed measures to enhance the US-South Korea “combined deterrence posture and to defend against a full range of threats” at a news conference following the security meeting.

Notably, the defense chiefs agreed on a Strategic Planning Guidance, which is the foundation for updating operational plans, the Korean-language statement said.

Seoul and Washington will write new operational plans reflecting “changing strategic environments” to “effectively deter North Korea’s threats.”

During the news conference, Austin said approval of the SPG is an “important step forward to frame forthcoming alliance planning,” explaining that both sides shared the assessment that Pyongyang’s advanced missile and nuclear capabilities are “increasingly destabilizing for regional security.”
The South Korean and US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will develop plans as the follow-up measures to the SPG.

Thursday’s announcement is significant as South Korea and US will write new war plans to replace the current OPLAN 5015 after 11 years.

Seoul and Washington previously agreed on the SPG on developing OPLAN 5015 in 2010 on the occasion of the 42nd SCM. Years later, the operational plan was officially signed by the two countries in 2015. 

Wartime OPCON transfer

South Korea and the US also decided to conduct the assessment of Seoul’s full operational capability during next year’s Combined Command Post Training in a move to take further steps to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea.

“The agreement can be assessed that we have achieved further progress in our discussion on transferring wartime operational control,” Suh said at the news conference.

The test is the second stage of assessing the South Korean military’s capabilities to command the future combined defense system in three phases. South Korea and the US completed the first stage in 2019, but the two countries have only conducted a rehearsal for the second stage mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the assessment is only one among three conditions for the wartime OPCON transition as stipulated in the bilaterally agreed transition plan. The South Korean military needs to demonstrate core capabilities to lead the combined defense posture as well as to respond to North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats. Lastly, the security environment on the peninsula and in the region should be conducive to transferring wartime OPCON to South Korea. 

Enhanced cooperation, China challenge
At the security meeting, South Korea and the US committed to develop the alliance in a mutually reinforcing and future-oriented manner.

Washington also affirmed its commitment to defend South Korea, including the provision of extended nuclear deterrence.

The joint statement restored the clause that reaffirms its commitment to maintain the current level of the US military personnel in South Korea, which was previously removed last year under the Trump administration.

Seoul and Washington also notably discussed the alliance’s role in addressing the China challenge and contributing to stability throughout the Indo-Pacific region, although the SCM joint statement did not make direct mention of China.

Seoul and Washington committed to promoting military cooperation between the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and South Korea’s New Southern Policy and aligning their regional strategies.

The SCM joint communique also took note of the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, which was previously mentioned in the Biden-Moon joint statement in May. This is noteworthy given that the Moon Jae-in government maintains its strategic ambiguity amid the growing US-China rivalry.

Thursday’s announcement is in line with the Biden administration’s emphasis on cooperation with allies and partners in maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific region against China and North Korea.

The annual defense ministerial meeting was held days after the Pentagon on Monday announced the results of its Global Posture Review after assessing the US posture across major regions outside the US.

The SCM also comes at a critical juncture as the Biden administration is in the process of drafting key strategy documents including a national security strategy and a nuclear posture review, which is expected to be completed early next year.

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)

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