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US, South Korea eye shift in rules of engagement on North Korea

Seoul's top general and US Adm. Mike Mullen did not formally announce a shift in rules of engagement. But South Korean analysts believe they are shaping the first possible strategy shift since the Korean War.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 8, 2010

Gen. Han Min-koo, chairman of South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his US counterpart Adm. Mike Mullen pose for photographers before their talks at a headquarters of South Korean Defense Ministry in Seoul on Wednesday, Dec. 8.

Lee Jae-Wo/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

The top US and South Korean military officers edged Wednesday toward a significant shift in the rules of engagement for countering North Korean attacks.

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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces, said after meeting his South Korean counterpart that South Korea as a “sovereign nation” had “every right to protect its people in order to effectively carry out its responsibility.”

That remark was seen here to mean that the US would not stand in the way of South Korean commanders ordering fighter jets to bomb and strafe North Korean bases in case of an attack by North Korea on a target in the South.

Admiral Mullen stood beside General Han Min-koo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean armed forces, as each of them parried questions about the need to remove constraints on South Korean forces.

The issue has assumed prime importance here in the aftermath of North Korea’s bombardment on Nov. 22 of an island in the Yellow Sea in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed. South Korea responded to the barrage by firing cannon ineffectively at North Korean targets while South Korean F15 fighters were scrambled to the area but ordered not to open fire.

No formal change announced, but understanding reached

Neither General Han nor Mullen went into detail on changes in the rules of engagement, but Han said South Korea and the US had “agreed to strongly respond to North Korea’s additional provocations.” They would, he said, be “refining” plans “for the alliance to resolutely respond to further North Korean aggression.”

South Korean analysts believe the two came to a definite understanding.

“They have more freedom in the choice of weapons,” says Kim Tae-woo, a vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “It is an historical change” – the first, he says, “since the Korean War.”

Mr. Kim a member of South Korea’s presidential commission for defense reform, says “the green light was given even though Mullen did not say so openly.”

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