South Korea and the United States have agreed to strengthen “comprehensive and combined” defenses against North Korea’s missile threats and to enhance cooperation to fend off its increasing cyber threats.
The two countries reached these agreements during a meeting of their foreign and defense ministers in Washington on Thursday. The so-called “two plus two” meeting was the second of its kind between the two allies, following the first held in Seoul in 2010.
The joint statement issued after the ministerial dialogue touched on a wide range of regional and global issues, ranging from U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral security cooperation and Burma’s transition to democracy, to sanctions on Iran, massacres in Syria and development support for Afghanistan.
Yet the most important issue for the four ministers was the growing missile and cyber threats from North Korea. They agreed to explore ways to respond to its expanding missile capabilities and take a “proactive and whole-of-government” approach to counter its cyber threats.
The Washington meeting will spur Seoul’s efforts to establish its own missile defense system, dubbed the Korea Air and Missile Defense, with the backing of Washington. The two countries signed an agreement in September 2010 to conduct joint research on KAMD, which is different from a U.S.-led global missile defense system.
Tailored to the terrain of the Korean Peninsula, KAMD is a “low-tier” defense system designed to intercept incoming hostile missiles or combat aircraft at an altitude of 10-30 km.
If developed as planned, KAMD will help protect the South against missile attacks from the North. Yet the system alone is not enough to deter the North’s missile threats.
To enhance missile deterrence, Seoul should develop longer-range missiles. Yet under a 2001 agreement with Washington, it is currently banned from developing ballistic missiles with a range longer than 300 km and a payload heavier than 500 kg.
Seoul has long demanded that the range be extended to 1,000 km but Washington has been reluctant to give the nod as Seoul’s neighboring countries, such as China and Japan, oppose it.
However, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said after the meeting that there has been “good progress” in talks on the missile range. His remarks raised hopes that the two sides would be able to arrive at an agreeable solution soon.
At the Washington meeting, the ministers also agreed to cooperate to combat the North’s threats in cyberspace. The two countries will establish a “cyber issues dialogue” involving relevant ministries and agencies to coordinate security policies of the government, military and business sector.
The move is timely as the insidious regime in the North is stepping up its cyber warfare against the South, as evidenced by the recent DDoS attacks and GPS signal disruptions.
The North is known to operate a large cyber warfare unit under the command of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, an organization believed to be responsible for the torpedoing of the Cheonan warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
The allies’ initiative indicates that they take the North’s cyber warfare efforts very seriously. They note in the statement that threats in cyberspace may put the infrastructure of the two nations at great risk.
If the North’s cyber attacks paralyze the South’s defense system, they could also threaten the U.S. defense system. Hence Washington’s decision to launch the consultative body with Seoul is well advised. The two allies should foil Pyongyang’s malicious attempts to bring down their economic and defense systems.
As the ministerial two-plus-two meeting has proved very productive and useful, the two allies need to make it a regular event. Doing so will help their comprehensive strategic alliance evolve further into a truly global partnership.