The United States and South Korea will increase the pace and scope of joint military exercises, and expand intelligence sharing, in response to repeated and more frequent missile tests by North Korea.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup promised a more resolute response to what they described as Pyongyang’s unprecedented level of provocations over the past year.
During a joint news conference following an hour-long meeting at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, Austin assured South Korean officials that Washington’s resolve remains firm, and that the Pentagon will use “the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including our conventional, nuclear, and missile-defense capabilities” to defend its long-time ally.
Austin and Lee also said the two countries would move ahead with new table-top exercises next month, as well as additional exercises and training.
Prior to the meeting, U.S. officials had promised a resumption of joint, live-fire exercises later this year.
Austin said South Korea could also expect more support along the lines of recent U.S. deployments, which included the deployment of F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, and a visit by the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group.
The United States currently has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. But Pyongyang’s bellicose behavior has stoked growing concern in South Korea, prompting President Yoon Suk Yeol to suggest earlier this month that Washington might need to redeploy nuclear weapons to the peninsula while saying Seoul could also begin to develop its own nuclear arsenal.
Austin met with Yoon Tuesday, following his meeting with Lee, though neither spoke to the media.
Lee, though, seemed satisfied with Austin’s assurances.
“Even if they [North Korea] do use their nuclear capabilities, the Republic of Korea and the United States have the capability to deter their efforts,” Lee said, speaking through a translator.
“The United States has the will to deter other uses of nuclear weapons, as well,” he added. “This goes on to demonstrate that we have the capability to deter any additional provocation by North Korea.”
“As things continue to evolve, our alliance continues to strengthen,” Austin added. “And we look for ways to strengthen that extended deterrence.”
This is Austin’s third trip to South Korea and his fourth meeting with Lee.
In a joint statement following their meeting, the two also committed to working with Japan to improve and facilitate the sharing of missile warning data due to the North Korean threat.
Support for Ukraine
Austin’s visit to Seoul Tuesday followed a visit Monday by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg urged South Korea, which has mostly provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, to increase its military support for Kyiv.
When asked Tuesday whether that could happen, South Korea’s Lee seemed to leave open the possibility.
Lee said he and Stoltenberg “shared a sentiment on the need for the international effort in overcoming this crisis” in Ukraine.
“Regarding our weapons support, our Republic of Korea weapons support, I’ll just say that I like to leave my answer that we are directing our close attention to the situation in Ukraine,” Lee said.