(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 4, 10-18)
By Song Sang-ho
WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States agreed Thursday on specific categories of "extended deterrence" cooperation against North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile threats, in a move to fortify the credibility of America's security commitment to its Asian ally.
Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, reached the agreement at their annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) at the Pentagon amid worries that Pyongyang is ready for a fresh nuclear test that will further compound security challenges facing the allies.
In the joint SCM communique, the two sides spelled out the four linear categories -- information sharing, consultation process, joint planning and execution -- in a decision that would pave the way for Seoul's involvement in those areas, where its role has largely been limited or absent.
In his opening remarks, Lee said that he and Austin agreed to reinforce the alliance's capabilities and posture in each category so as to "effectively deter ad respond to advancing North Korean nuclear and missile threats."
The SCM document sets the tone for the allies' defense collaboration amid calls in South Korea for Seoul to pursue a nuclear sharing arrangement akin to that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or other measures to ensure the U.S. adheres to its extended deterrence pledge.
Extended deterrence means America's stated commitment to mobilizing a full range of its military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, to defend its ally under attack.
Public angst over the North's nuclear threats has deepened as the recalcitrant regime has been pushing to develop tactical nuclear weapons and secure diverse, survivable launch platforms under an aggressive nuclear policy that leaves open the possibility of preemptive strikes.
Concerns also lingered that Pyongyang's push to develop long-range missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland could make Washington dither on whether to come to the aid of South Korea should it be attacked.
Against this backdrop, Seoul has been pushing to have a say in the process of the U.S. planning and executing Washington's deterrence procedures, including the potential employment of nuclear arms.
Apparently mindful of security concerns in the South, Austin highlighted the U.S.' security commitment.
"At this time of heightened tensions, our alliance is ironclad," he said. "The U.S. remains fully committed to the defense of the ROK and our extended deterrence commitment is firm, which includes a full range of nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities.
ROK stands for South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea."
Austin also said that "any nuclear attack against the U.S. or its allies and partners, including the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim Jong-un regime," according to the communique.
Touching on the deployment of U.S. strategic military assets, Lee said that Austin agreed on increasing the frequency and intensity of the deployment of such assets to and around the peninsula to create the effect similar to that of permanently stationing them in Korea.
The SCM document also includes the defense chiefs' agreement to work together to complete ongoing work to revise the allies' "tailored deterrence strategy (TDS)" ahead of next year's SCM.
Adopted in 2013, the allies' tailored deterrence strategy (TDS) is designed to cope with growing threats from the North's nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
In addition, Lee and Austin pledged to conduct annual table top exercises based on a North Korean nuclear use scenario.
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