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South Korea, U.S. to practice crippling North’s nuclear command

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United States Forces Korea Commander Gen. Paul LaCamera speaks to South Korean and U.S. service members at Command Post Theater Air Naval Ground Operations (CP Tango) during a media tour on March 9. According to South Korean military officials, LaCamera was one of the main advocates of incorporating left of launch strategies into the allies' next joint exercise, which is scheduled to take place in August. [JUN MIN-KYU]
United States Forces Korea Commander Gen. Paul LaCamera speaks to South Korean and U.S. service members at Command Post Theater Air Naval Ground Operations (CP Tango) during a media tour on March 9. According to South Korean military officials, LaCamera was one of the main advocates of incorporating left of launch strategies into the allies’ next joint exercise, which is scheduled to take place in August. [JUN MIN-KYU]

South Korea and the United States plan to conduct drills to paralyze North Korea’s nuclear weapons command during their joint exercise in August, according to multiple military sources on Monday.

While details of the drill are yet to be disclosed, officials who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo said it would be the first to incorporate “left-of-launch” strategic thinking into the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise.

“Left-of-launch” strategies aim to preempt enemy strikes with non-kinetic technologies, such as electromagnetic propagation and cyber disruptions, before missiles can be launched. Such strategies aim to cripple weapons delivery systems by embedding disruptions in enemy command and control networks, targeting their electronic radar signatures and disabling ballistic missile guidance systems.

The North’s state media reported that the regime possesses an IT-based nuclear weapon management program during leader Kim Jong-un’s inspection of nuclear warheads and technology for mounting warheads on ballistic missiles at an undisclosed location in March last year.

State media said the program, named Haekbangasoe or “nuclear trigger” in Korean, is “responsible for the integrated operation of nuclear weapons by various means in a multifaceted operational space,” suggesting it is the key to the North’s nuclear arsenal.

A South Korean military official told the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity that the need to develop a left-of-launch strategy suited to Seoul’s security needs “was mentioned in the Defense Ministry’s report released last year” and added that applying the theory to the allies’ joint exercise has “meaningful implications” for their joint readiness.

South Korean military sources partially attributed the drill to Paul LaCamera, chief of United States Forces Korea and the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, who reportedly drew attention to gaps in Seoul’s existing deterrence strategy that became apparent during the last month’s Freedom Shield exercise.

Seoul’s so-called tri-axis defense strategy, which is aimed at deterring and defending against armed provocations by North Korea, consists of three components: Kill Chain, which aims to detect and destroy North Korean missiles before they can be launched; Korea Air and Missile Defense, which focuses on intercepting missiles mid-flight; and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR), which threatens the elimination of North Korea’s leadership and command nodes in response to an attack.

The new left-of-launch drill that the allies plan to conduct during Ulchi Freedom Shield is intended to make up for any delays in detection and enable South Korean and U.S. military leaders to preempt a North Korean attack without the risk of escalating hostilities, according to one South Korea military official who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity.

“If North Korea carries out a surprise strike before the allies can detect it, it raises questions about the efficacy of the Kill Chain plan,” said the source, who also noted that any decision to execute KMPR could also be complicated by its enormous political cost.

Lee Sang-kyu, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, has also proposed that South Korean conventional assets be used to transport and use U.S. nuclear weapons in any potential conflict to bolster the KMPR plan.

According to Lee, the use of South Korea’s dual-capable aircraft to transport and use U.S. nuclear weapons would render the North uncertain about which South Korean conventional assets are carrying tactical weapons, which he argued would have a strong deterrence effect.

BY CHUNG YEONG-GYO, LEE KEUN-PYUNG, LEE YU-JEONG AND MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]