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S. Korean, US defense chiefs to discuss alliance deterrence, readiness against N. Korea threats

Defense leaders plan to advance discussion on follow-up measures to May 21 summit

Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup (R) and his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, pose for a photo before their talks on the sidelines of a security forum in Singapore on Saturday. (File Photo - Ministry of National Defense)
Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup (R) and his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, pose for a photo before their talks on the sidelines of a security forum in Singapore on Saturday. (File Photo - Ministry of National Defense)
The South Korean and US defense chiefs are set to extensively discuss how to reinforce the alliance’s deterrence and defense posture to address evolving missile and nuclear threats from North Korea.

South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup is scheduled to make his first trip to the US between Tuesday and Saturday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced Monday.

Lee will meet US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday to “share an assessment of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and have an extensive discussion on various pending issues of the South Korea-US alliance,” the Defense Ministry said in a press statement.

In essence, Austin and Lee will advance their discussion on follow-up measures to the agreements made at the May 21 South Korea-US summit, a senior official at the Defense Ministry -- who asked to remain anonymous -- said Monday during a closed-door briefing.

The defense chiefs met for the first time on June 11 in Singapore on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit and had an initial discussion on the follow-up actions.

The four main agendas for the meeting are the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korea-US combined defense posture, trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan and regional situation and international security cooperation, according to the unnamed senior official. 

Combined defense posture
The South Korean and US defense chiefs are expected to largely discuss the two related to combined defense posture: US extended deterrence and combined military exercises.

Austin and Lee will put heads together to figure out how to enhance the viability of the US extended deterrence against nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

The two will “make considerable advancement” in their discussions on the reactivation of the vice ministerial-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, the unnamed senior official said.

The last meeting of the EDSCG between South Korean and US vice ministers of foreign affairs and defense was held in January 2018. But Seoul and Washington have been in discussion to expeditiously hold an EDSCG meeting, the senior official said, declining to confirm the exact date.

A “concrete discussion” on the deployment of the US strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula will be held during the defense ministerial meeting.

The two defense chiefs also plan to discuss how to expand the scope and scale of the South Korea-US combined military exercises and training, which the South Korean and US presidents previously agreed on at their summit on May 21.

Last Friday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry unveiled the plans to resume regiment-level and larger-scale field training exercises between South Korea and the US and re-establish the system to conduct theater-level combined military exercises in its briefing to President Yoon Suk-yeol. 

South Korea and the US have also changed the name of combined military exercises from Combined Command Post Training to Freedom Shield, according to the ministry.

Seoul and Washington plan to issue a joint press statement, which will carry the outcomes of advanced discussion on alliance-related issues, the senior official said.

Trilateral security, Ukraine War
Lee and Austin will also touch upon trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan. But the discussion will be largely based on the agreements made at the trilateral defense ministerial meeting held on June 11 in Singapore, according to the senior official.

“The issue of the trilateral security cooperation was discussed in considerable detail at the meeting held on the margins of the Shangri-La Dialogue,” the official said. “Since then, we have continued to develop plans to respond to North Korea’s provocations.”

During the in-person talks, Austin and Lee will also focus on discussing how to support war-torn Ukraine concerning regional and international security issues.

But the senior official said the lethal aid to Ukraine is not an agenda topic for the discussion, elucidating that the US has requested the South Korean government provide non-lethal and humanitarian assistance and support the postwar reconstruction of the war-battered country.

During the trip, Lee also plans to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the completion of the Wall of Remembrance at the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington on Wednesday. The day marks the 69th anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War.

The Korean War monument engraves the names of 36,574 American service members and more than 7,200 members of the Korean Augmentation who died during the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Lee will also pay respect to the sacrifice and dedication of Korean War veterans by personally meeting them and the families of the war dead. The defense minister plans to place a wreath of flowers at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and visit the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, which provides residence and care services for war veterans.

Additionally, Lee is scheduled to discuss how to develop the South Korea-US alliance and align Indo-Pacific regional strategies in his meetings with former commanders of the United States Forces Korea and researchers at the US major think tanks, the senior official said.