Korea, US military chiefs discuss contingency plans
By Jun Ji-hye
Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman Gen. Lee Sun-jin asked Washington, Wednesday, to strengthen its deterrence against North Korea, including deploying U.S. strategic assets in South Korea.
During a 20-minute phone call with his U.S. counterpart, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Lee stressed the importance of implementing measures agreed to in December during the inaugural meeting of the allies' Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) in Washington.
At the time, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to regularly deploying strategic weapons, such as nuclear-capable bombers, to South Korea to better deter Pyongyang's growing nuclear and missile threats.
This is the first time that Seoul brought up the issue of the deployment of strategic weapons since the inauguration of President Donald Trump's administration, Jan. 20.
The telephone conversation took place a day after talks between Defense Minister Han Min-koo and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, during which the latter vowed to offer extended deterrence, which refers to Washington's stated commitment to defend its ally by mobilizing all military capabilities ― nuclear and conventional ― to deal with the North's aggression.
"During their phone conversation, the two generals also reaffirmed the allies' commitment to forming a strong joint defensive posture against the North," the JCS said, adding that the two agreed on the greater possibility of the isolated state pushing forward with strategic and tactical provocations to show off its advanced nuclear capability around major events in the isolated state.
Lee cited North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's birthday on Feb. 16, the allies' Key Resolve exercise in March and the North's late founder Kim Il-sung's birthday on April 15 as possible days for such provocations, according to the JCS.
The young leader claimed in his New Year address that the North has entered the final stages of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of about 10,000 kilometers, capable of hitting targets on the U.S. mainland.
Following the talks, expectations are growing that Han and Mattis will discuss whether Washington will deploy U.S. strategic assets to South Korea on a regular rotational basis during their upcoming meeting scheduled for Friday in Seoul.
Mattis will arrive here today for a two-day visit on his first overseas trip after being appointed to head the Pentagon. He said he chose South Korea as his first destination as the Seoul-Washington alliance is significant amid growing North Korean threats. Gen. Dunford will accompany Mattis.
During the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in October, Minister Han and former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter agreed to conduct a review of whether to deploy strategic military assets to the South on a rotational basis.
The U.S. armed forces temporarily dispatched strategic assets such as B-52 and B-1B bombers to Seoul last year in response to Pyongyang's two nuclear tests and missile launches.
Observers raised the likelihood that the bombers and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers could participate in the Key Resolve exercise.
Meanwhile, the United States plans to deploy 12 F-16 fighter planes to South Korea this month, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces Command said.
"Approximately 200 airmen and 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons with the 119th Fighter Squadron from Atlantic City Air National Guard Base, New Jersey, are set to deploy in February to Osan Air Base" in South Korea, the command said on its website.
The U.S. Pacific Air Forces routinely deploys a unit to the region in a bid to counter North Korea's growing threats and bolster the Seoul-Washington alliance since 2004. The move is part of its "theater security packages", which aims to help "maintain a deterrent against threats to regional security and stability," the command said.
The planned action would mark the first deployment of military assets by the U.S. to South Korea since Trump took office last month.