Nuclear Threat Bogs Down Seoul Taking Control of Wartime Defenses

In this file photo from Nov. 11, 2012, South Korean and U.S. soldiers at the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea face North Korea. U.S. Army
In this file photo from Nov. 11, 2012, South Korean and U.S. soldiers at the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea face North Korea. U.S. Army

SEOUL -- The U.S. and South Korea agreed on the general terms of a conditions-based transfer for Seoul to assume operational control for its defenses in wartime but fell short of nailing down the final details due to concerns over North Korea's nuclear threat, defense leaders for both countries said Monday.

Working out conditions for transfer was to be one of the accomplishments of this year's Security Consultative Meeting, where Defense Secretary Ash Carter is meeting with South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo. But concerns that North Korea is preparing a fourth nuclear test and developing long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead delayed the process again.

Carter still called signing the conditions-based approach "a major step forward" and said it will ensure South Korean forces have time to acquire the necessary capabilities to "address the North Korean threat."

Han added: "In the face of increasing threats, especially in the form of nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, we also agreed that the alliance needs to work in various ways to cooperate and to rise against and respond against these threats."

The meeting came a day after the heads of state for South Korea, China and Japan met for the first time in three years and agreed to push North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program. The talks broke down six years ago.

"The six-party talks can act as an effective platform" Han said.

While China's apparent willingness to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin the negotiations shows the positive role it can play in the region, its aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea -- through which about 30 percent of global trade passes -- is a major concern.

The USS Lassen made a "freedom of navigation" cruise last Tuesday within China's claimed 12-mile territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. Subi is among the disputed reefs and islands where China has been dredging up new land and constructing airstrips and fortifications.

Carter said China's provocations have led to Pacific area nations to see "greater partnership with us in the areas of maritime security" even though the U.S. doesn't "take sides in territorial disputes.

"But we do staunchly sit on the side of resolving them peacefully," he said, calling for no "further dredging or militarization in the South China Sea."

Han declined to overtly support the U.S. sail through the Chinese-claimed Spratly Islands, saying instead: "This is a maritime route that is very important to us and our interests. In terms of any conflict ... they should be resolved within the framework of international law. ... We have asked to refrain from any action that threatens the peace and stability of this area."

The consultative meeting was aimed at identifying and agreeing upon what defense capabilities South Korea would obtain to set the stage for the transfer of operational control to Seoul for the defense of the peninsula, including the 28,500 U.S. service members stationed here. Currently, a U.S. general would assume that responsibility if war broke out.

Wartime powers were to have shifted to a South Korean commander next month, but last year, the U.S. and Seoul agreed to delay the handover, citing North Korea's growing nuclear threat.

The U.S. has had lead responsibility for the defense of South Korea since the two countries signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953 following the cease-fire that ended fighting in the Korean War, but not hostilities.

The transfer, originally planned for 2007, likely remains years away, and the two sides did not announce any developments on any changes to the U.S.-basing footprint here.

Instead, Han said the two sides "aim to reassess many of the issues."

Among the issues are the types of counter-battery fires South Korea needs, and the communications, surveillance and intelligence systems it would put in place.

Han "affirmed that the ROK is continuing to develop ROK counter-fire forces capable of executing the mission during the early phases of war by around the year 2020." There has been debate in South Korea over whether to allow the U.S. to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense ballistic missile defense system here.

China opposes the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, saying it would spark an arms race.

Han said THAAD "was not discussed, and we have not made any agreement related to THAAD." Carter said deploying the system here "would be an alliance decision."

Han defended South Korea's continued reliance on the U.S., saying many countries around the globe rely on partnerships for their self-defense, and in deference to the region's security situation, it is in the country's best interests to "maintain its alliances."

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