Seoul took the 70th anniversary of the US-South Korea alliance as an opportunity to propose comprehensive talks on the issue, senior Defense Ministry officials confirmed during a closed-door briefing on condition of anonymity. They added that the US had agreed.
The plans were among the Defense Ministry’s major policy tasks for 2023 that were briefed to President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday.
“South Korea and the US shared the view on the need to update the operational system of the UN Command that was initially established 70 years ago,” one senior official told reporters.
Both sides have been in talks to seek the “best form of the UN Command to fulfill the two key missions” agreed by Seoul and Washington, the official said, requesting anonymity. The UNC’s main missions are to enforce the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement that ended fighting on the peninsula and to provide military support and reinforcements in the event of war.
South Korea has set the goal of completing discussions with the US and issuing a public statement based on the outcomes within this year, officials said.
Seoul and Washington will also push ahead with a defense ministers meeting between South Korea and UNC “sending states” for the first time to discuss the modernization of the UNC's operations and structure in Seoul. The multilateral meeting will be held in the latter half of the year on the occasion of the South Korea-US annual Security Consultative Meeting and Seoul Defense Dialogue.
South Korea defines the sending states as 16 nations, beyond South Korea and the US, which provided support in the Korean War and committed to providing military and other forms of support in case of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula in Washington on July 27, 1953. The 16 states are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
But neither the UN Command nor the US Defense Department had responded to The Korea Herald's requests for comment on the bilateral discussion as of press time Wednesday.
The Yoon government also aims to enhance cooperation with the US and strengthen the role of South Korea in operating the UNC and revising and updating its operational procedures and structure, an official with knowledge of the matter said during a phone call with The Korea Herald.
One main goal of the talks with the US is to settle conflicts between the South Korean government and the UNC in enforcing the Korean Armistice Agreement, the unnamed official said. For instance, the UNC rejected requested visits by government and military officials to the Demilitarized Zone during the previous Moon Jae-in government, citing the armistice agreement.
The current Yoon government seeks to find appropriate ways to enforce the armistice agreement in light of the changes since 1953, the official said, pointing out that a lack of talks between the South Korean and US military authorities had widened the differences on the matter.
The UNC was first established pursuant to UN Security Council Resolutions 82, 83 and 84 in July 1950, following the UN’s recognition of North Korean aggression against South Korea. The resolutions designated the US as the leader of the UNC.
The UNC, therefore, operates under the direction of the US Secretary of Defense and chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and does not fall under the command and control of the UN headquarters. In that sense, North Korea has repeatedly called for dismantling the US-led UN Command at meetings of the UN General Assembly, claiming it only serves US political and military interests.
By holding multilateral talks, Seoul also aims to reaffirm the intention of the 16 sending states that committed to returning to South Korea should the agreement fail in 1953.
“Since 1953, we have not reconfirmed if the UN Command sending states have still intention to abide by their commitment to reparticipating in the war,” the senior official told The Korea Herald.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry additionally plans to take the initiative in launching “substantial” multilateral discussions on procedures on how the UNC sending states can dispatch their forces to the Korean Peninsula in an emergency.
“Our goal is to establish a system to make the UN Command operate properly if the occasion arises,” the official said.
The official said previous South Korean governments had not put any efforts to interact with the UNC sending states although the UNC has held talks with ambassadors of the sending states in Seoul.
“Previous governments had either sought to ignore it or did not realize its significance. Either way, it wasn’t the right direction,” the official told The Korea Herald. “As our national power has considerably grown, we need to establish cooperation mechanisms on the UN Command where South Korea can raise its opinion in its operations.”
South Korea’s Defense Ministry and the US Defense Department are set to stage a tabletop exercise, or TTX, in February in the US, the first of its kind since September 2021, to come up with optimal policy response in simulated contingency scenarios, including North Korean nuclear threats and the use of nuclear weapons.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and a corresponding US military organization will also separately stage a TTX for the first time in May to discuss specific military responses in real-life scenarios.
The outcome of the forthcoming TTX will be reflected in the Tailored Deterrence Strategy, which will be updated and revised by the end of this year in light of the evolving nature of North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities, according to the Defense Ministry.
South Korea and the US also agreed to hold springtime combined field training exercises, dubbed Freedom Shield, for 11 days without any break, to conduct more realistic training exercises compared to the past. The drills will be the longest held yet.
Speaking at the briefing, Yoon told the defense minister that the South Korean military “must be fully prepared to exercise the powerful right of self-defense against provocations that threaten freedom and peace” of the country. To that end, Yoon underscored the importance of conducting “effective training exercises to prepare for war.”
Seoul also set the goal of launching its first military reconnaissance satellite capable of monitoring North Korean activities this year to “drastically enhance” South Korea’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, Lee told reporters during a press conference following the briefing.
Despite escalating North Korean missile and nuclear threats, the South Korean military has largely relied on US assets for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The South Korean military plans to put a total of five spy satellites into orbit by 2025 to shorten the interval between observations of the same location.
The military will also launch the first microsatellite using a solid-fuel space rocket this year. A constellation of microsatellites will be launched later for military surveillance and reconnaissance.