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.

Lee Jae-Wo/AP
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.

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

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.”

US support for any shift in rules of engagement is essential in view of the US-Korean military alliance, dating from the Korean War, and overall US command responsibility for all forces in the South in time of war. The US would not assume command of South Korean forces in response to a relatively minor attack, such as that on Yeonpyeong island, but US agreement is wanted for any essential policy shifts.

Buildup of tensions

Mullen arrived here just as a newly appointed defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, who had also served previously as chairman of South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff, was settling into his post with a mandate to vastly improve South Korea’s defenses. South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak appointed him amid widespread criticism of the poor state of the South’s defenses.

Mr. Kim in the past few days has been saying that South Korean planes would attack North Korean targets in the event of an attack similar to that on Yeonpyeong Island. He’s under orders from Mr. Lee to build up fortress-like defenses on the Yellow Sea islands and also south of the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end off the Korean War in 1953.

Intrinsic in the buildup is a commitment by the US for more exercises such as those last week in which the aircraft carrier George Washington led a US strike force into the Yellow Sea for war games with South Korean forces. South Korean forces engaged in still more exercises this week off the east, west and southern coasts despite North Korean threats of “all-out war.”

Mullen emphasized, meanwhile, the need for China to pressure North Korea not to carry out more attacks. He spoke after a trilateral meeting in Washington among Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign minister of Japan and South Korea. At the same time, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, planned to go to China next week bearing the same plea.

The Chinese have “unique influence,” said Mullen, referring to China’s position as North Korea’s only real ally and the source of most of its food and fuel. “Therefore they bear unique responsibility.”

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