ROK-U.S. News

Yonhap -Koreas restore cross-border hotlines 55 days after suspension

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Oct. 4 (Yonhap) — South and North Korea restored their direct communication lines Monday, raising hopes for the resumption of stalled inter-Korean dialogue amid a drawn-out deadlock in denuclearization talks.

The two sides had contact through a military hotline and a separate joint liaison office channel, according to South Korean officials.

Hours earlier, North Korea’s state media announced that the lines would be back to normal operation as of 9 a.m. on the day.

Last year, North Korea blew up a liaison office in its border town of Kaesong and unilaterally cut off all inter-Korean communication lines in anger over anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent from South Korea.

The hotlines were briefly back in operation in late July before being suspended by North Korea in protest of an annual combined military exercise of South Korea and the United States. The North has long denounced the allies’ annual military exercise as a rehearsal for invasion.

On Monday, South Korea immediately expressed hope for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue.

The reconnection of the communication lines is viewed as having “laid the ground for bringing the relations between the two Koreas back on track,” the unification ministry said in a statement.

It added, “Through that stable management of the communication lines and swift resumption of dialogue, the government hopes to begin and advance substantive discussions on improving inter-Korean relations and making peace take root on the Korean Peninsula, along with implementing agreements between the two Koreas.”

The two sides agreed to hold regular phone calls via the liaison office twice a day at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., the unification ministry said.

South Korea’s defense ministry also expressed hope that the restoration of the hotlines would ease military tensions with North Korea.

The ministry said that both of the two direct military communication lines — the western and eastern hotlines — operated normally but Pyongyang has not answered the South’s calls via ship-to-ship radio links that use the global merchant marine communication.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Yonhap News Agency that Washington strongly supports inter-Korean cooperation, saying that the restored communication lines are important in creating a more stable environment on the Korean Peninsula.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said South Korea “should make positive efforts to put the North-South ties on a right track and settle the important tasks … bearing deep in mind the meaning of the restoration of communication lines.”

North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, carried a similar story on the restored hotlines, in a departure from July when the North kept news about the short-lived restoration of the hotlines out of media outlets for the domestic audience.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the second day of a session of the Supreme People's Assembly, the North's parliament, at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang on Sept. 29, 2021, in this photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) the next day. Kim said that cross-border communication lines with South Korea will be restored in early October as part of efforts to improve relations and build peace on the Korean Peninsula, according to the KCNA. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the second day of a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s parliament, at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang on Sept. 29, 2021, in this photo released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) the next day. Kim said that cross-border communication lines with South Korea will be restored in early October as part of efforts to improve relations and build peace on the Korean Peninsula, according to the KCNA. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed his willingness to restore cross-border communication lines from early October, citing a bid “to realize the expectation and desire of the entire nation who want the North-South relations to be restored as soon as possible and lasting peace to be settled on the Korean Peninsula.”

But he stressed that it is entirely up to South Korea when it comes to the future trajectory of their ties.

In a recent U.N. speech, South Korean President Moon Jae-in again proposed the declaration of a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea called the offer an “admirable idea,” saying that it is willing to discuss improving inter-Korean relations only when Seoul stops double standards against its “defensive” weapons tests and “hostile” policy toward its regime.

Unification Minister Lee In-young told reporters in Berlin on Sunday (local time) that South Korea will push to arrange high-level talks with North Korea before the end of this year. He was on a trip to three European countries, including Germany, to drum up support for Seoul’s efforts to improve ties with Pyongyang.

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Yonhap – N.K. missile launches show serious threat: Pentagon official

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Sept. 27 (Yonhap) — North Korea’s recent missile launches show the “seriousness of threat” posed to the United States and South Korea, a Pentagon official said Monday, amid a conciliatory gesture from Pyongyang after a series of weapons tests.

Siddharth Mohandas, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, made the remark at the start of the biannual 20th Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD) in Seoul to discuss regional security situations and pending alliance issues.

“North Korea’s recent missile launches remind us of the seriousness of the threat we face together,” Mohandas said, calling the alliance the “linchpin” of peace and security in the region against such challenges.

The remarks came two days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, said the North could declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, as suggested by South Korea, and even discuss an inter-Korean summit if Seoul drops what she called a “hostile policy” against Pyongyang.

Kim’s statement came amid concerns over the North’s recent cruise and ballistic missile launches, and signs of the reclusive regime reactivating a key nuclear reactor at its mainstay Yongbyon complex.

Earlier in the day, U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, including a Global Hawk, were spotted flying over the Korean Peninsula in an apparent move to track North Korea’s activities following the missile launches and Kim’s statement.

Referring to the recent talks of a formal end to the Korean War, Deputy Defense Minister Kim Man-ki said, “It is time a more close coordination between the South Korea-U.S. alliance is required.”

During the two-day meeting, the two sides plan to discuss “major pending security issues,” such as the assessment of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and the policy coordination on North Korea, according to the defense ministry.

Also on the table during this week’s meeting will be the conditions-based transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul and ways to strengthen defense cooperation between the two countries, the ministry said.

Launched in 2011, KIDD is a comprehensive defense forum between Seoul and Washington that usually meets twice a year. The last session took place in Washington in May.

This photo, captured from North Korea's official Korean Central Television on Sept. 16, 2021, shows a short-range ballistic missile being fired from a train in a central mountainous area of the North the previous day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

This photo, captured from North Korea’s official Korean Central Television on Sept. 16, 2021, shows a short-range ballistic missile being fired from a train in a central mountainous area of the North the previous day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

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Yonhap – Kim Yo-jong calls Moon’s war-end declaration offer ‘admirable idea,’ demands end to hostile policy

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) — The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said Friday that President Moon Jae-in’s proposal to declare a formal end to the Korean War is an “admirable idea” and Pyongyang is willing to discuss improving inter-Korean relations if Seoul ceases to be hostile toward it.

Kim Yo-jong stressed, however, that the right conditions should be created first before an end-of-war declaration is adopted, such as the removal of what she called “inveterate hostile policy and unequal double standards” toward the North.

Her statement came just hours after a vice foreign minister of the North dismissed Moon’s end-of-war declaration proposal as “something premature,” saying such a declaration would end up as nothing more than a scrap of paper as long as the U.S. hostile policy remains unchanged.

While the earlier statement from Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae-song appeared to be geared toward the United States, the statement from the North Korean leader’s sister was seen as targeted more toward South Korea.

“The declaration of the termination of the war is an interesting and an admirable idea. … But it is necessary to look into whether it is the right time now and whether there are conditions ripe for discussing this issue,” Kim said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

“Now double-dealing standards, prejudice and hostile policies toward the DPRK and speeches and acts antagonizing us persist. Under such situation it does not make any sense to declare the end of the war with all the things, which may become a seed of a war between parties that had been at odds for more than half a century, left intact,” she added.

DPRK stands for the North’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim said that such preconditions should be met first before both Koreas will be able to sit down face-to-face to have meaningful discussions on the matter.

Kim also said that North Korea is willing to discuss improvements in inter-Korean relations but that is also contingent upon whether South Korea stops applying double standards and hostile policy toward the North.

“We have willingness to keep our close contacts with the South again and have constructive discussion with it about the restoration and development of the bilateral relations if it is careful about its future language and not hostile toward us,” she said.

Inter-Korean relations have significantly chilled since North Korea blew up a liaison office in its border town of Kaesong and cut off all cross-border communication lines in June last year.

The communication lines were back online briefly in late July, but the North did not respond to Seoul’s regular calls again in protest of summertime joint military drills by South Korea and the United States, which Pyongyang usually denounces as a rehearsal for invasion.

North Korea has recently heightened tensions by test-firing a new type of long-range cruise missile, which was followed by ballistic missile launches.

Some cautiously raised the possibility North Korea could respond to calls for dialogue as indicated by its previous pattern of turning conciliatory after such military drills ended.

“North Korea has a track record of demonstrating a very hawkish stance during joint military drills by South Korea and the U.S., and then becoming conciliatory after the drills were over,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute.

“In view of Kim Yo-jong’s statement, the possibility has risen North Korea could restore the inter-Korean communication lines at an appropriate time and come out for dialogue with the South on occasion of such events as the Beijing Winter Olympics,” he added.

The two Koreas are still technically at war, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.

Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister and currently vice department director of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee, is pictured as she visits Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi, in this file photo dated March 2, 2019. On Aug. 10, 2021, Kim slammed South Korea and the United States for going ahead with joint military exercises, accusing Washington of using dialogue offers to conceal its aggressive intentions and expressing deep regret over Seoul's "perfidious behavior." (Yonhap)

Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister and currently vice department director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, is pictured as she visits Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi, in this file photo dated March 2, 2019. On Aug. 10, 2021, Kim slammed South Korea and the United States for going ahead with joint military exercises, accusing Washington of using dialogue offers to conceal its aggressive intentions and expressing deep regret over Seoul’s “perfidious behavior.” (Yonhap)

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Yonhap – Moon to bring 68 sets of Korean War remains home from U.S.

By Lee Chi-dong

HONOLULU, Sept. 22 (Yonhap) — South Korean President Moon Jae-in received the remains of 68 Korean soldiers, killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, from the United States in a ceremony in Honolulu on Wednesday.

South Korea also handed over five sets of American service members’ remains to the U.S. during the joint repatriation ceremony held at Hickam Air Force Base.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) hosted the event, along with the South Korean defense ministry’s Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification, and Moon “organized” it in person, according to Cheong Wa Dae.

He became the first South Korean president to organize such a remains handover ceremony abroad, it added.

Moon was on a visit to Hawaii following a New York trip for a U.N. General Assembly session.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends a joint ceremony with the United States at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii on Sept. 22, 2021 to transfer the remains of Korean and American soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends a joint ceremony with the United States at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii on Sept. 22, 2021 to transfer the remains of Korean and American soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. (Yonhap)

The remains of two soldiers who have been identified — Pfc. Kim Seok-joo and Pfc. Jung Hwan-jo — was transported on Moon’s presidential jet after a mutual handover signing ceremony. The caskets carrying the remains were drapped in the South Korean national flag.

The caskets containing the remains will be placed on the seats of the aircraft in a show of respect for “the heroes” even while in flight, according to Cheong Wa Dae.

The two were serving at the 32nd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Seventh Division under the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) Soldier Program. They were killed in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in 1950.

Their remains were discovered by North Korea and sent to Hawaii, along with those of American soldiers. The remains were identified in early September.

“What our war heroes wanted to see on the Korean Peninsula was a complete peace,” Moon said at the event and reiterated his call to bring an official end to the Korean War by forging an end of war declaration between the two Koreas and the United States, and possibly China.

The Korean War ended only with an armistice, technically leaving the divided Koreas at war to date.

Moon added, “Sustainable peace is what the world hoped to achieve through the foundation of the U.N. An end of war declaration will give new hope and courage to everyone around the world aspiring for peace beyond the Korean Peninsula.”

He also said Seoul and Washington’s “unwavering endeavor to achieve complete denuclearization and establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula” will never stop.

Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said that the Korean War “brought our two nations side by side to fight for and defend the values embodied in the ideals of freedom,” and also thanked member nations of the U.N. Command for paving the way for the strong network and alliances offering security and freedom in the Indo-Pacific region.

South Korea’s military will carry the other 66 sets of remains, still unidentified, on a KC-330 Cygnus Multi Role Tanker Transport, with Defense Minister Suh Wook aboard.

Among other attendees at the ceremony were Hwang Ki-chul, South Korea’s minister of patriot and veterans affairs; Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, commander of United Nations Command; and Hawaii Gov. David Ige.

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Yonhap – S. Korean troops on overseas missions celebrate Chuseok

SEOUL, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) — South Korean soldiers deployed overseas celebrated the Chuseok holiday with various activities but without events inviting guests due to coronavirus concerns, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said Monday.

This year’s Chuseok, the Korean autumn harvest celebration and one of the biggest holidays in the country, falls on Tuesday, resulting in a five-day weekend that started Saturday.

South Korean soldiers overseas usually invite locals to their bases and hold events to mark the national holiday. But they are celebrating the holiday themselves this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the military.

From the Dongmyeong unit in Lebanon and the Hanbit unit in South Sudan to the Akh unit in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Cheonghae unit on anti-piracy missions off the coast of Africa, troops held a joint memorial ceremony for ancestors and enjoyed traditional games at their respective bases, the JCS said.

“The Akh unit members spent the holiday while also preparing for a combined exercise with the UAE slated for October,” a JCS officer said.

Currently, some 1,000 South Korean troops are operating on missions across the globe for international peace and defense cooperation.

Service members of South Korea's Cheonghae unit on anti-piracy missions off the coast of Africa play a Korean traditional game to mark the Chuseok holiday in this photo provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Service members of South Korea’s Cheonghae unit on anti-piracy missions off the coast of Africa play a Korean traditional game to mark the Chuseok holiday in this photo provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

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Yonhap – N. Korea test-fires new long-range cruise missiles: state media

By Koh Byung-joon and Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, Sept. 13 (Yonhap) — North Korea has successfully test-fired a new type of long-range cruise missile over the weekend, state media reported Monday, a low-level provocation amid stalled talks with the United States.

The test-firings, which took place Saturday and Sunday without leader Kim Jong-un in attendance, came right after the North held a scaled-down military parade, and appeared to be intent on demonstrating its military power in a low-level provocation without violating U.N. sanctions.

The North is banned from using ballistic technology under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. Cruise missiles, however, are not subject to the sanctions as they are considered less of a threat than ballistic missiles.

The missiles “traveled for 7,580 seconds along an oval and pattern-8 flight orbits in the air above the territorial land and waters” in North Korea and “hit targets 1,500 km away,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

“The development of the long-range cruise missile, a strategic weapon of great significance in meeting the key target of the five-year plan for the development of the defense science and the weapon system … has been pushed forward according to the scientific and reliable weapon system development process for the past two years,” the KCNA said.

“Detailed tests of missile parts, scores of engine ground thrust tests, various flight tests, control and guidance tests, warhead power tests, etc. were conducted with success,” it added.

The photos, provided by the Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 13, 2021, show a missile being fired and traveling in the sky. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

The photos, provided by the Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 13, 2021, show a missile being fired and traveling in the sky. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the latest test poses threats to the region and beyond.

“We are aware of reports of DPRK cruise missile launches. We will continue to monitor the situation and are consulting closely with our allies and partners,” the command said in a release. DPRK stands for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“This activity highlights DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community. The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad,” it added.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said that an in-depth analysis is under way in close cooperation with U.S. intelligence authorities but refused to confirm details, including where the test was conducted and if they detected the launches in advance.

The South Korean military has disclosed information on North Korea’s test-firings of ballistic missiles almost on a real-time basis, but not for cruise missile tests.

Experts say the North’s newly unveiled weapon resembles the U.S.’ long-range Tomahawk and South Korea’s Hyunmoo-3C cruise missiles.

Ballistic missiles have a much longer range and move faster than cruise missiles of the same size. But cruise missiles are still threatening as they fly in a relatively straight line and at low altitudes, making them harder to detect. Cruise missiles can also carry nuclear warheads, according to the experts.

The latest test-firings came after the North held a scaled-down military parade at midnight Thursday to mark the 73rd state founding anniversary.

The North paraded mostly paramilitary troops, fire engines and artillery-carrying tractors rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles and other strategic weapons. The event appeared to be aimed at consolidating internal solidarity amid challenges from the coronavirus pandemic and global sanctions on its economy.

The test-firings also came after the North warned of “a serious security crisis” in protest against the major combined exercise between South Korea and the U.S. last month. Many have expected the North to carry out major weapons tests or to undertake provocations.

Pak Jong-chon, member of the Presidium of the politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party, watched the latest test-firings, along with other senior officials, the KCNA said. Leader Kim did not attend the tests.

“He stressed the need for the field of the national defense science to go all out to increase the defense capabilities, the war deterrence of the country and keep making achievements in meeting the grand and long-term targets of securing war deterrence,” Pak said, according to the KCNA.

Experts said that North Korea appears to have conducted the test-firings in a way that demonstrates its military power, but by using cruise missiles, not ballistic missiles, it avoided provoking the U.S. too much.

They still worried that the North could continue conducting such tests going forward and seek to make those missiles smaller and possibly adaptable to submarines down the line.

“Given that the missile development was launched two years ago as part of the five-year plan, the project appears to have started after mid-2019,” said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-run think tank.

“The North could continue such tests so as to make them smaller as part of the five-year plan, and there is also a possibility that the missiles could be developed to be able to be launched from submarines,” he added.

The latest firing marks the third known major missile test by the communist country so far this year.

On March 21, the North fired two cruise missiles off the west coast, according to the JCS. Four days later, it fired off two ballistic missiles into the East Sea, believed to be an upgraded version of its KN-23 Iskander-type missile.

Some local media also reported that the North conducted a cruise missile test in January just hours after U.S. President Joe Biden took office.

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Yonhap – N. Korea holds midnight military parade without Kim’s address, new weapons

By Koh Byung-joon and Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, Sept. 9 (Yonhap) — North Korea held a midnight military parade to mark the 73rd anniversary of its founding, but leader Kim Jong-un did not deliver an address and no new strategic weapons were displayed, according to state media and South Korean officials.

The parade, which began at midnight Thursday, was watched closely by South Korea and others because the North could show off state-of-the-art weapons systems or leader Kim could make a speech about inter-Korean relations or nuclear talks with the United States.

But the parade at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square featured artillery-carrying tractors and military search dogs rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and other strategic weapons. Also seen were fire engines looking like the same model produced by German carmaker Mercedes Benz.

Leader Kim reviewed the parade, but no speech was given.

The official Korean Central News Agency said the parade was mostly led by the Worker-Peasant Red Guards (WPRG), a civilian defense organization in North Korea composed of around 5.7 million workers and farmers, rather than regular troops.

“North Korea does not appear to have presented strategic weapons this time. I think the parade was mainly for domestic audiences, rather than to convey messages to the U.S. or South Korea,” a military official in Seoul said.

The parade was also conducted on a smaller scale than the previous ones held in January this year and in October last year, as it seemed to have lasted for about an hour and involved a small number of personnel and equipment, he added.

It marked the North’s first military parade since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The January event was held days before Biden’s inauguration.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (front) acknowledges the crowd during a military parade at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9, 2021, to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the country's founding, in this photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (front) acknowledges the crowd during a military parade at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9, 2021, to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the country’s founding, in this photo released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

“The military parade of civilian and security armed forces was held at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang to mark the 73rd anniversary of the republic’s founding,” the KCNA said. “As the welcoming music was performed at midnight on Thursday, Comrade Kim Jong-un walked up to a podium.”

Photos and reports by the KCNA and the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Kim dressed in a Western-style suit waving at rifle-toting, goose-stepping soldiers marching through the square.

Later in the day, state TV aired recorded footage of the parade.

Instead of leader Kim, Ri Il-hwan, a party secretary, addressed the parade.

“The government of the republic will firmly defend the dignity and the fundamental interests of our people and solve everything our own way with our own efforts on the principle of self-reliance and self-development under any circumstances,” Ri was quoted as saying by the KCNA.

“We will increase the People’s Army, a pillar in defending the state, in every way, put the defense industry on a higher juche and modernized basis and keep spurring the struggle for carrying out the Party’s policy on putting all the people under arms and turning the whole country into a fortress to ceaselessly improve the defense capability of the country,” he added.

The North last staged a military parade in January after a rare party congress and showcased a new submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and other advanced ballistic missiles. In October last year, it also held a massive nighttime military parade, displaying new types of SLBM and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Thursday’s parade came as the North has been struggling with a worsening economy amid the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic and international sanctions. North Korea claims to be coronavirus-free but has maintained border closures with China since early last year.

Denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea have also stalled. Washington has said it is ready to hold talks with the North anywhere, at anytime, but the communist country has remained unresponsive to U.S. overtures.

Last month, the North warned of “a serious security crisis” in protest against the major combined exercise between South Korea and the U.S. Some have expected the North to carry out major weapons tests or to undertake provocations, but the JCS has said the North had not shown any unusual military moves.

North Korea last held a military parade on the occasion of the national foundation day in 2018 to celebrate the 70th anniversary. At that time, the communist country did not display ICBMs that could target the U.S., as the event took less than three months after the first summit between Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

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Yonhap – No discussions with U.S. on USFK troop reduction: defense ministry

SEOUL, Sept. 6 (Yonhap) — South Korea and the United States had no discussions on reducing American troop levels in South Korea, the defense ministry said Monday, after a U.S. House committee passed a bill not specifying a lower limit for the number of its soldiers stationed here.

On Thursday, the U.S. House committee on armed services passed a defense authorization bill that does not specify the lower limit for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

U.S. Congress began adding a lower limit for the 28,500-strong USFK in 2018, after then President Donald Trump started to use the troop levels as a bargaining chip in talks with South Korea over negotiations on how to share the cost for the upkeep of the American troops here.

An informed source has said the removal of such a clause was because the Joe Biden administration has no plans to reduce troop levels in the Asian ally.

“I once again stress that there were no discussions with the U.S. side on reducing USFK troop levels,” deputy ministry spokesman Col. Moon Hong-sik said during a regular press briefing.

A foreign ministry official stressed that Washington has confirmed it has no intention to pare down the U.S. troop presence here.

“We don’t think the removal of the clause means a policy shift of the U.S. government,” the official said.

“South Korea and the U.S. share the firm understanding of the role of and the need for the USFK,” he added.

This file photo, taken on Aug. 5, 2021, shows a U.S. military base in Dongducheon, north of Seoul. (Yonhap)

This file photo, taken on Aug. 5, 2021, shows a U.S. military base in Dongducheon, north of Seoul. (Yonhap)

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Korea Joongang Daily – U.S. House bill could restrict troop drawdown to 22,000

Gen. Won in-choul, chairman of Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and Gen. Robert Abrams, the outgoing commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), take part in an honor guard ceremony hosted by the JCS at its headquarters in Yongsan District, central Seoul, Tuesday. Abrams led the USFK since November 2018, and Gen. Paul LaCamera will succeed him in a change of command ceremony slated for Friday. Abrams said he will continue to actively support the “ironclad” bilateral alliance. [JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF]

Gen. Won in-choul, chairman of Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and Gen. Robert Abrams, the outgoing commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), take part in an honor guard ceremony hosted by the JCS at its headquarters in Yongsan District, central Seoul, Tuesday. Abrams led the USFK since November 2018, and Gen. Paul LaCamera will succeed him in a change of command ceremony slated for Friday. Abrams said he will continue to actively support the “ironclad” bilateral alliance. [JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF]

A bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives restricting the drawdown of U.S. troops in Korea to a floor of 22,000, which is 6,500 lower than a cap set under the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Alliance Act calls to maintain a strong military readiness on the Korean Peninsula by limiting the American president’s power to reduce U.S. forces deployed in Korea.

The bill states, “None of the funds made available to the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2022 may be used to reduce the total number of members of the United States Armed Forces serving on active duty who are deployed to the Republic of Korea below 22,000,” unless it is in the national security interest of the United States and will not undermine the security of U.S. allies in the region.

The limit is lower than the one set in the NDAA for the fiscal year 2021, which restricts a drawdown of troops below 28,500. The NDAA for fiscal year 2019 required a floor of 22,000 troops.

The latest bill was introduced by a group of bipartisan lawmakers including Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey last Friday, to mark the 71st anniversary of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Gallagher’s office told the Voice of America Monday that 28,500 is a figure that takes into account the rotational deployment of U.S. troops from the U.S. mainland to South Korea.

Under the proposed House bill, the defense secretary would have to have “appropriately consulted” with allies Seoul and Tokyo on such a reduction, and South Korea would also have to be “fully capable of defending itself and deterring a conflict on the Korean Peninsula” even after a reduction of troops. This is similar to the preconditions under the current NDAA.

However, the bill includes a list of more stringent measures to take into consideration for a withdrawal of U.S. troops in the region, including “the effect of such reduction on increasing incentives for the Republic of Korea to develop an independent nuclear deterrent.”

To reduce the number of U.S. troops to below 22,000 under the U.S.-ROK Alliance Act, the defense secretary would also have to report to Congress its effect on the deterrence on the Korean Peninsula; anticipated reaction from Pyongyang; the likelihood of Seoul developing its own nuclear deterrent; its impact on long-term military and economic partnership between Washington and both Seoul and Tokyo; and the military balance between the United States, China and Russia.

The bill recognizes that the withdrawal or significant reduction of U.S. troops from Korea “may risk upsetting the military balance in that region” and states that the U.S. Congress should be consulted should there be any significant changes to the status quo.

Under the previous U.S. administration, former U.S. President Donald Trump often used the reduction or withdrawal of U.S. troops from allied countries as a negotiation card. He has also questioned the necessity of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in the region.

U.S. President Joe Biden in February ordered Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to conduct a global posture review on the American military’s resources and strategies to best allocate U.S. military forces, which is expected to conclude soon. It is unclear how this review would impact the deployment of U.S. forces in Korea, or whether it could involve the reallocation of some American troops to other areas.

Analysts point out that the Biden administration has not been keen on South Korea’s plans to develop nuclear-powered submarines. The bill’s language reflects concerns in Congress on what a reduced U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula could mean in terms of Seoul’s plans to develop its own nuclear deterrence.

“The U.S.-ROK alliance has been a bedrock of security not only on the Korean Peninsula, but throughout the Indo-Pacific,” said Gallagher in a statement Friday. “I’m proud to stand with this bipartisan group to make clear America will always stand alongside its indispensable ally.”

Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, another sponsor of the bill, said, “This bill sends a clear message to the people of South Korea that the United States will remain a reliable partner, including by maintaining our troop presence for as long as the security of both of our countries demand it.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


Article: https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2021/06/29/national/defense/USFK-US-Forces-Korea-KoreaUS-alliance/20210629171000532.html

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