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High-level defense talks discuss North’s growing threats

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Cara Allison Marshall, the Pentagon’s principal director for East Asia, and Heo Tae-keun, South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, pose for a photo to mark the 23rd Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue that took place in Seoul on Monday. [MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEFENSE]
Cara Allison Marshall, the Pentagon’s principal director for East Asia, and Heo Tae-keun, South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, pose for a photo to mark the 23rd Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue that took place in Seoul on Monday. [MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEFENSE]

Defense officials from South Korea and the United States met in Seoul on Monday for talks designed to bolster deterrence against North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons and missile threats.

The Korea-U. S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD), which last took place in April, is expected to touch on several areas of security cooperation between South Korea and the United States, including ways for the allies to coordinate their response and deterrence strategies against Pyongyang’s growing arsenal.

During the talks, the two sides are also expected to explore ways to strengthen their joint readiness posture and discuss the conditional transfer of wartime operational control, also known as Opcon, from Washington to Seoul, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

The talks were led by Heo Tae-keun, South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, and Cara Allison Marshall, the Pentagon’s principal director for East Asia, as well as other officials from both countries.

Launched in 2011, KIDD is a regular comprehensive meeting between the allies’ senior defense officials.

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Monday’s KIDD talks took place amid signs that deepening cooperation between North Korea and Russia could lead to advances in the North’s space program, which has tried but failed to launch two military reconnaissance satellites into orbit this past year.

Pyongyang’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Monday that regime leader Kim Jong-un’s “successful” talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin had “opened a new chapter” in the two countries’ relations in its report on Kim’s departure from Vladivostok.

In this photo released by Pyongyang's state-controlled Korean Central News Agency on Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes a Russian military band performance in Vladivostok before boarding his train back to North Korea. [YONHAP]
In this photo released by Pyongyang’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency on Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes a Russian military band performance in Vladivostok before boarding his train back to North Korea. [YONHAP]

During the six-day trip — his first overseas visit since 2019 — Kim held a summit with Putin and toured several key Russian military sites, including the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport as well as the Yuri Gagarin and Yakovlev aircraft plants in Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

While the exact results of the two leaders’ summit have not been made public, Kim’s decision to include senior defense and space officials on his trip has sparked speculation that the North could agree to supply Russia with ammunition and weapons to use in Ukraine in exchange for advanced space and military technology.

Korean People’s Army Marshal Ri Pyong-chol, who oversees the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, and Pak Thae-song, chairman of the North’s national space science and technology committee, were present in photographs of Kim’s entourage as he departed Pyongyang by train last week.

During his summit with the North Korean leader, Putin expressed his intent to help develop North Korea’s satellite program and also accepted Kim’s invitation for a return visit to Pyongyang as the two leaders highlighted their “strategic cooperation,” according to the KCNA.

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Meanwhile, the South Korean state arms procurement agency said Monday that South Korea will invest approximately 290 billion won ($218 million) to develop a more advanced version of an indigenous missile system capable of destroying underground enemy facilities.

According to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), the development of the Korean Tactical Surface-to-Surface Missile-II system will boost the South Korean military’s precision strike capabilities against targets hidden inside tunnels and bunkers.

A DAPA official told reporters on condition of anonymity that the new missile system, which can be transported and fired from mobile launchers, is aimed at striking underground North Korean weapons systems, such as long-range artillery systems that are usually cached away inside tunnels.

While current South Korean bunker-busting missiles can fly up to 180 kilometers (111.8 miles), the new missile system is expected to have a range of over 300 kilometers, placing all but the farthest regions of North Korea within range.

North Korea maintains around 6,000 artillery systems within range of major South Korean population centers, including Seoul, according to a 2020 report by policy think tank Rand Corp.

North Korea used coastal artillery embedded in underground tunnels to shell South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea in 2010, killing two marines and two civilians.

The attack spurred Seoul to develop its current anti-bunker missile system.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]