(ATTN: UPDATES with minister's remarks in paras 9-10)
By Song Sang-ho and Chae Yun-hwan
SEOUL, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States plan to stage a combined military exercise next month under the scenario of use of a nuclear weapon by North Korea, Seoul's defense ministry said Wednesday in its report to President Yoon Suk Yeol on major policy tasks this year.
Among other plans are holding a 11-day springtime South Korea-U.S. exercise without a break, conducting a final test of a homegrown solid-propellant space rocket and launching the country's first military surveillance satellite.
Led by the allies' Deterrence Strategy Committee (DSC), the discussion-based Table-Top Exercise (TTX) is set to take place in the U.S. in the latter half of February, as the two sides agreed to hold it annually at a bilateral defense ministerial meeting in November last year, according to the ministry.
During the exercise, the allies are expected to discuss coordinated responses to a scenario of North Korean nuclear use, including cooperation procedures with the international community, a ministry official said.
"In the past, the TTX centered largely on discussions about deterrence and crisis management," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "But the scope (of the planned exercise) will widen as the North even raised the possibility of nuclear use, fanning concerns among our citizens."
Launched in 2011, the TTX had been held annually. But under the preceding liberal Moon Jae-in administration keen on inter-Korean rapprochement, the exercise took place only twice, including the seventh and last edition in Seoul in September 2021.
Deputy Defense Minister for Policy Heo Tae-keun is to lead the South Korean delegation, while the U.S. side is expected to be headed by deputy assistant secretaries of defense for nuclear and countering weapons of mass destruction policy and for East Asia.
The TTX has recently drawn keen media attention, as Yoon said in a recent media interview that the allies had been discussing "joint planning" and "joint exercise," involving U.S. nuclear assets, to bolster deterrence against North Korean nuclear threats.
In a press briefing after his report to Yoon, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said the allies plan to hold a separate joint TTX in May for the first time.
"It would be a TTX that is more detailed and realistic compared with past TTXs that were held at a policy level," Lee said.
This year, the allies plan to stage the springtime Freedom Shield (FS) exercise for the longest-ever period of 11 days with no break. Previously, the regular exercise took place in two segments with a weekend intermission.
"(In the FS), we will apply realistic training scenarios that reflect the current security situations, including lessons from the war in Ukraine and advancing North Korean threats, so as to improve its practicality," the ministry said in a press release. "Through the exercise without any break, we will redouble its effectiveness."
Along with the FS exercise, Seoul and Washington plan to carry out some 20 large-scale field exercises in the first half of this year -- all at the same level of intensity as the Foal Eagle training officially suspended in 2019 amid diplomacy with the North.
The exercises include the Ssangyong (double dragon) amphibious drills, which the allies plan to scale up to a division level from the brigade level.
To boost the country's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, the ministry plans to launch the country's first military surveillance satellite in the latter half of this year. Seoul has sought to deploy five such satellites by the mid-2020s.
The ministry also plans to conduct a final flight test of a homegrown solid-propellant space launch vehicle later this year in an effort to secure independent capabilities to put a satellite into a low Earth orbit.
It also reiterated its commitment to bolster counter-drone capabilities in the wake of the North's drone infiltration across the inter-Korean border last month. Related plans include building a real-time target intelligence-sharing system and securing kinetic and non-kinetic assets such as drone jamming guns.
To expand space security cooperation, the ministry unveiled a plan to conduct a table top exercise with the U.S. and nurture space forces harnessing cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence.
Under a campaign to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of their alliance, Seoul and Washington plan to host a meeting of defense ministers from member countries of the U.S.-led U.N. Command (UNC), according to the ministry.
The allies have also been discussing the "updating" of cooperation mechanisms within the UNC, launched soon after the 1950-53 Korean War, so as to ensure its relevance with the present time, according to Seoul officials. They plan to wrap up the updating process this year.
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