In Seoul, Austin promises ‘ironclad’ U.S. security upgrade against rising threat from North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on a visit to Seoul Monday expressed an ‘Ironclad” U.S. military commitment to defend South Korea and offered fresh assurances of Washington’s commitment to beef up its deterrence program to shield its ally from the threat of an increasingly dangerous North Korea.

During the visit Monday, Mr. Austin and his South Korean counterpart Shin Won-sik oversaw the first update in a decade of the bilateral “Tailored Deterrence Strategy” targeting North Korea, though no details were released on what changes were made.

Also during Mr. Austin’s visit, the Pentagon announced that South Korea, the U.S. and Japan have agreed to boost the exchange of real-time missile warning data to “improve each country’s ability to monitor missiles launched by North Korea”  by the end of the year.

On Tuesday, Mr. Austin is set to oversee a conference of officials from the UN Command’s 16 “sending states” that fought for South Korea during the 1950-53 war. Unlike the U.S., the other nations in the command have no binding security commitments to South Korea.

Since 2018, Washington has sought to re-invigorate the U.S.-led body, appointing a series of non-U.S. deputy commanders: a Canadian general, an Australian admiral and a British general. The planned Tuesday gathering drew ire from North Korea today. State media on Monday called the UNC “an illegal war organization” and demanded its disbandment.

Reflecting Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Seoul last week, the U.S. and defense ministers talked up what is known here as “extended deterrence” — essentially, the deployment of U.S. strategic assets in South Korea to head off any military threat from the regime of Kim Jong Un. Both capitals have repeatedly stated that North Korea will be destroyed as a state if it initiates a nuclear war.

Earlier this year, a U.S. nuclear missile-armed submarine and a strategic bomber visited South Korea, prompting more angry responses from Pyongyang.

“We will continue to do the things we promised to do,” Mr. Austin told reporters after a day of talks. “In the past 12 months, we’ve transformed our posture in the region. We are more forward deployed and more capable to respond to anything that could happen.”

However, there remains in some sections of South Korean society an undercurrent of fear that in an actual war, Washington might be unwilling to trade “Seoul for San Francisco” – i.e, it might refrain from using nuclear arms if South Korea is attacked in order to safeguard its own cities from a North Korean counterstrike.

Even President Yoon Suk-yeol has suggested that, in the future, South Korea might need to develop and control its own nuclear arsenal. The U.S. push for extended deterrence is in part an effort to ease the uncertainty here.

“Secretary Austin reiterated the firm U.S. commitment to provide extended deterrence to [South Korea], utilizing the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, missile defense, and advanced non-nuclear capabilities,” a communique issued with Mr. Austin’s meetings here said.

South Korean analysts say that the hand-holding is necessary.

“It’s like the love affair between young men and women: You have to say I love you two or three times per day,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general.

Daniel Pinkston, a U.S. international relationship specialist at Troy University, noted that South Korea “relies on U.S. extended deterrence, including the nuclear umbrella. And in every alliance relationship, partners are concerned about abandonment or entrapment.”

And as the election year of 2024 approaches, the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House is only feeding the concerns. Mr. Trump famously struck a chummy personal relationship with the North’s Mr. Kim, questioned the costs of the U.S. deployment in South Korea, and demanded South Korea and Japan pay more for the protection afforded by the American military.

“Assurance mechanisms are only half the coin, the other half is having your ally convinced,” said Mason Richey, an international relations professor at Seoul’s Hankook University of Foreign Studies. “Those things have a shelf life, and increasingly, you are going to see some fidgety Koreans.”

North Korea’s burgeoning military relationship with Russia in recent months is another concern for both the U.S. and South Korea.

“We’re seeing [North Korea] provide military equipment to Russia for its brutal aggression against Ukraine, but we’re also seeing Russia provide technological support to [North Korea] for its own military programs, and that’s a real concern for the security of Korea,” Mr. Blinken said on his stop here last week.

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