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. (Ministry of National Defense)
SINGAPORE -- The South Korean and the US defense chiefs on Saturday agreed to flesh out their plans to step up combined military exercises and enhance the viability of the US extended deterrence against North Korea’s mounting threats.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup had his first in-person encounter with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the morning on the sidelines of the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit that runs until Sunday in Singapore. The 30-minute meeting kicked off at 10:45 local time.
The two defense chiefs discussed ways to enhance coordination in handling North Korean threats and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Lee and Austin shared the view that the close coordination between the two countries is more important than ever in light of the grave situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region.
Scaling up military exercises
Both sides specifically discussed how to take the follow-up measures on the agreements made at the Yoon-Biden summit on May 21. The South Korean and US presidents agreed to scale up military exercises and reinforce the US extended deterrence against North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats.
“Both ministers agreed to expand the scope and scale of the South Korea-US combined military exercises and training, which were agreed at the South Korea-US summit, to maintain a firm military readiness and fight tonight readiness,” South Korea’s Defense Ministry said in a Korean-language statement.
“Both sides agreed to seek concrete action plans through consultations between the military authorities.”
Fight tonight readiness
The two defense chiefs also took note that “stable and free access to the military training facilities in South Korea is the key to maintaining the combined defense posture and fight tonight readiness,”
Austin also expressed his gratitude to Lee for the Yoon Suk-yeol government‘s plan to ensure the full-capacity operation of a military base that hosts the THAAD interceptor system at an early date, a senior official at South Korea‘s Defense Ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, said during a closed-door briefing.
Against that backdrop, the Defense Ministry said both sides discussed ways to enhance the viability of the US extended deterrence.
Extended deterrence is the US’ commitment to deter or respond to adversaries’ coercions or nuclear and non-nuclear military attacks on US allies and partners. The US nuclear umbrella is one means the US offers to achieve extended deterrence.
During the meeting, Lee specifically emphasized the importance of making bilateral efforts to reactivate the vice ministerial-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), hold Tabletop Exercise, and deploy US strategic assets “in a timely and coordinated manner.
The US Defense Department on Saturday said Austin underscored the US’ ironclad commitment to defend South Korea, which is “underpinned by the full range of US capabilities, including nuclear,” in a separate statement.
In May. Biden reaffirmed the US extended deterrence commitment to South Korea “using the full range of US defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities,” in the South Korea-US joint statement.
During a press briefing, Lee also underscored that the bilateral meeting has “significance in the sense that the two could pave the way to take the follow-up measures on the security issues that were discussed at the South Korea-US summit.“
“The meeting also serves as a good opportunity for South Korea and the US to establish mutual consensus on the major pending issues related to the alliance.”
Indo-Pacific region, Ukraine
Both sides also discussed military aid to Ukraine during the bilateral talks, the South Korean official told the closed-door briefing.
Austin did not directly request South Korea to provide lethal weapons to the war-torn country, but he asked South Korea to step up its military aid in light of the lack of weapons in Ukraine.
Lee, in return, said South Korea is reviewing ways to provide make more support to Ukraine while admitting the legal constraints to supply weapons to Ukraine.
In addition, the security environment and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region were discussed at the bilateral talks, the two countries confirmed in their press statements.
The US side “expressed concerns over China’s move to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific and his hopes to strengthen the South Korea-US coordination to make China adhere to the rules-based international order,” the South Korean official said.
N. Korea as major regional challenge
The US defense chief repeatedly underscored the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region in his keynote speech delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue
“Today, the Indo-Pacific is our priority theater of operations. Today, the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of American grand strategy.”
But at the same time, Austin underscored that his country’s “security alliances partnerships in the Indo-Pacific are a profound source of stability.”
The US defense chief pointed to the North Korean nuclear threats as one of the regional major challenges in the Indo-Pacific and underlined the salience of the trilateral cooperation in coping with the menace.
“As our National Defense Strategy notes, we all face a persistent threat from North Korea. The United States will always stand ready to deter aggression—and to uphold our treaty commitments and the will of the UN Security Council,” he said.
“North Korea’s habitual provocations and missile tests only underscore the urgency of our task. And so we’re deepening the security cooperation among the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea.”
The US defense chief said the three countries will push forward a multi-pronged approach of simultaneously strengthening the alliance’s readiness capacity and opening the door for dialogue.
“Together, we will continue to strengthen our extended deterrence against nuclear arms and ballistic missile systems. And we remain open to future diplomacy and fully prepared to deter and to defeat future aggression.”