Top U.S. military leadership converged in South Korea on Thursday to discuss Seoul’s military defenses amid new threats by North Korea that it is preparing to detonate a second hydrogen bomb.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, U.S. Pacific Commander Navy Adm. Harry Harris and U.S. Forces-Korea Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks were scheduled to meet with their South Korean defense counterparts in Seoul over the next two days for technical discussions on the various military capabilities South Korea is pursuing to better defend itself against North Korea’s evolving ballistic missile program.
On Saturday, those discussions will be followed at the defense ministerial level between Mattis and his counterparts on a broader political discussion over the region’s security challenges.
The regular military conference between the two countries has taken place since the 1970s but is unique this year due to the heightened security environment, Dunford said.
“With the unprecedented missile testing and nuclear testing under Kim Jong Un, this is certainly a tense period on the peninsula,” Dunford said to reporters traveling with him.
This week, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho issued the country’s latest threat, stating at a United Nations meeting in New York that the regime intends to detonate a Hydrogen bomb above the Pacific Ocean.
Dunford and Mattis are in South Korea at the same time the U.S. has dispatched the aircraft carriers Nimitz, Reagan and Roosevelt to the Pacific. Dunford downplayed the timing, noting that this was the second time the Navy has sailed three carriers in the region this year and said the movement was scheduled months in advance. He emphasized that the three carriers were “not there specifically targeted at North Korea.”
Having three carriers in the Pacific did send a message, he noted.
“First and foremost, it gives us the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the Pacific region. It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our ability to meet our alliance commitments,” Dunford said, adding that “from an operational perspective, there’s some utility in bringing together the three carriers and operating in that regard.”
One of the key defense items under discussion is a request by South Korea to further revise a 1979 agreement with the U.S. that would allow it to increase the payload on its own ballistic missiles from 500 kg to 1000 kg. In the original bilateral agreement, South Korea accepted limits on its payloads and missile ranges in exchange for U.S. assistance on missile technology. The agreement has been twice revised to allow for a larger range but not for an increased payload. However this September, President Donald Trump indicated he was supportive of the payload being increased, as well.
Increasing South Korea’s missile capabilities could reduce some of the demand on U.S. forces to provide those defenses, Dunford said.
“They’ve been on a path toward increased South Korean capability for a long time, so the more they can do for themselves, clearly, the better,” Dunford said.
Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the agreement revision would “lift the weight limits on South Korean missiles and allow for more advanced missiles.”
“South Korea wants to send a very strong message to North Korea,” Collins said.
The defense heads will also discuss South Korea’s progress toward meeting the conditions-based transfer of operational control, or OPCON, over the approximately 28,000 U.S. forces stationed there. U.S. and Korean forces at present are under U.S. command and control in the case of attack. But that operational control could one day be transferred to South Korea if certain conditions are met.
“Inherent in the responsibilities of OPCON transfer and a Korean being in command means they then need to deliver all of the capabilities necessary to effect OPCON transfer,” Dunford said. “That’s largely command and control capabilities, personnel, staff [and] organization.”
The visit also occurred days after the U.S. officially installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, as a permanent component of the 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade in Seongju, South Korea.
The first phase of the system, including two launchers, was dispatched from Fort Bliss, Texas, this past spring. South Korea wavered on completing its assembly after intense pressure from China, which protested that the defense system’s radar would be turned on its territory. South Korea later renewed calls for the system to become fully operational after a constant barrage of North Korean nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches in the spring. The last remaining four launchers and the full complement of 48 interceptors are now operating in Seongju.
Following his meetings in Seoul, Dunford is scheduled to travel to Hawaii for a trilateral meeting with South Korea and Japan’s defense chiefs.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.