05.01.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

A Chronicle of Inter-Korean Tensions in the Forth Quarter of 2023. Part One: Actions of the South

A Chronicle of Inter-Korean Tensions in the Forth Quarter of 2023

We would like to bring to your attention the next digest of “moving towards red lines” on the Korean Peninsula. Since the articles should be kept concise, the author has to divide this narrative into two parts: first, with the South, then, with the North in focus.

On October 5, 2023, during hearings in the US Senate, a well-known American expert on the countries of the Korean Peninsula from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Victor Cha, proposed to develop and adopt a new policy providing for prevention measures to neutralize the DPRK missile threat. As such, he proposed a statement on the right of the United States to shoot down the North Korean missiles heading towards Japan, Hawaii or the west coast of the United States, as well as the possibility of launching a preemptive strike on launch sites if signs of preparation for a missile attack are detected.

In return, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins stated, “the United States does not consider as part of its policy the possibility of launching preventive strikes on the DPRK within the context of containing the nuclear missile threat. A preemptive strike is not the course the United States is steering,” Jenkins added.

On October 9, new Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik called for reinforced standby against North Korea, “If North Korea provokes, firstly, retaliate against it immediately. Secondly, take decisive actions in response. Thirdly, take revenge until it comes to a close.”

On October 9-10, the navies of the Republic of Korea, the United States, and Japan held a joint missile defense exercises on the high seas southeastward Jeju Island. These were the first trilateral naval drills in seven years. They were organized as per the agreements to foster security cooperation reached during the trilateral summit at Camp David. The South Korean destroyer Yulgok Yi I and the combat support ship Cheonji, the American aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and the Japanese battleship Hyūga took part in the exercises. The allies worked on repelling a North Korean assault using nuclear weapons, as well as on counter-piracy measures.

On October 12, USS Ronald Reagan arrived in Busan. The five-day visit was intended to “demonstrate the strength of the US-South Korean alliance against the backdrop of threats from the DPRK” and was planned within the framework of bilateral agreements (the Washington Declaration) on the strategic deployment forces set-up on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea responded with the statement that the United States continues to escalate the already explosive situation on the Korean Peninsula, “where there is a constant probability of a military clash, and black clouds of a nuclear war outbreak are gathering,” and recalled that “the United States reserves the right to launch a nuclear strike against the enemy if it attacks or there are any clear signs of preparation for this.”

On October 13, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea announced the large-scale Hoguk defense exercise from October 16 to November 22, aimed at maintaining engagement readiness and enhancing the combat capabilities. Units of the ground forces, maritime forces, air forces and marine corps of South Korea, as well as US military forces in the Republic of Korea, will take part in the drills. It is planned to test a wide range of scenarios for responding to different types of threats from the DPRK, such as the use of nuclear weapons, a missile strike, an attack using drones, etc.

On October 16 – 27, the 7th Mobile Corps of the South Korean Armed Forces conducted joint exercises with American servicemen. 6,600 people practiced redeploying military forces simultaneously with an airstrike against the enemy, as well as building temporary bridges across rivers with fire support from tanks, armored assets and helicopters.

On October 17, the B-52 strategic bomber first landed in South Korea, making a memorable flight over the biennial defense exhibition ADEX 2023 and participating in joint air exercises with South Korean F-35A stealth fighters. As Maj. Rachel Buitrago, the 7th Air Force Public Affairs director, commented, “it shows that if we are needed, we will be here.” Lt. Col. Vanessa Wilcox, commander of the 96th Bomb Squadron operating the aircraft, neither confirmed nor denied the presence of a nuclear weapon on the bomber.

The DPRK did not remain silent, pointing out that a lot of US and ROK generals came to the air base where the B-52 landed, “who freely use rude words about a preemptive strike, running their mouths that the transfer of nuclear strategic weapons “demonstrates an unshakable will to fulfill the promise to ensure the extended deterrence” and “hints at the probability of dropping a nuclear bomb on the North at any time in case of emergency.” Claiming that provocations of a nuclear war against the North are progressing into a “more dangerous stage,” Pyongyang pledged to take a “corresponding option.” Although the United States considers violence to be a means of solving problems, its attempts are doomed to failure, as KCNA commented. The United States understands that the Korean Peninsula is legally at war, and its strategic assets are the first targets for destruction.

On October 19, as part of the Hoguk field exercise, South Korea and the United States began joint armored force field training exercises to bridge rivers near the border with North Korea and in other regions. Approximately 6,600 soldiers, including about 100 American servicemen, 630 pieces of equipment, 700 military vehicles and 40 helicopters jointed the field training exercise.

On October 22, the media reported that the South Korean and United States navies had completed a week-long Silent Shark anti-submarine warfare exercise in the waters off the coast of Guam from October 6 to 22, aimed to improve warfare interoperability between the allies in fighting the DPRK submarines. The ROK sent a 1,800-ton Son Won Il-class submarine and two P-3C patrol aircraft to participate in the drills. The drills took place amid Pyongyang launched a new “tactical attack submarine” capable of carrying nuclear weapons in September.

On October 22, the air forces of the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan conducted joint exercises in the Korean Peninsula region, at the intersection of the KADIZ and JADIZ air defense identification zones. According to the South Korean military department, they took place in the area where the air defense identification zones of the Republic of Korea and Japan intersect. Previously, the US Air Force had conducted joint exercises separately with the ROK and Japan, but this was the first time they were held in a trilateral format. The exercises involved South Korean F-15K, Japanese F-2 and American F-16 fighter jets. In addition, the American B-52 strategic bomber was involved to join them. As the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea recalled, the exercises were held as per the agreements reached earlier this year at the South Korean-American-Japanese summit at Camp David.

On October 24, complex field training exercises with the participation of the ground, naval and air forces of the Republic of Korea and the US naval forces began in the Yellow Sea and Chungcheongnam-do/South Chungcheong Province as part of the Hoguk exercises. They involved the Yulgok Yi I destroyer, the P-3 patrol aircraft, AW-159 helicopters, FA-50 and F-4E fighter jets, as well as the US P-8 patrol aircraft and Apache helicopters of the US Navy. Actions were practiced to identify and destroy North Korean landing forces on the islands in the Yellow Sea.

On October 27, the ROK media reported that South Korea and the United States had held a three-day large-scale exercise to sharpen their ability to respond to North Korean long-range artillery threats. The drills, involving more than 5,400 South Korean and US troops and some 300 artillery pieces, began Wednesday across the country “amid renewed attention on Seoul’s readiness against possible North Korean artillery shelling in the wake of HAMAS’ recent surprise attack on Israel.” The allies used K9 and K55A1 self-propelled howitzers, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), counter-battery radars, multiple launch rocket systems, Army tactical missile systems, South Korean F-15K fighter jets and American A-10 attack aircraft. The strategy and tactics of counter-battery warfare and methods of suppressing North Korean artillery in the territory adjacent to the inter-Korean border were worked out.

From October 30 to November 3, large-scale Vigilant Defense joint air force exercise took place involving about 130 aircraft of various types, such as South Korean F-35A fighter jets, E-737 airborne early warning and control aircraft, KC-330 tanker transport aircraft, the Australian KC-30A multi-role tanker transport aircraft, as well as the American F-35A, F-35B and FA-18 fighter jets. Some of the aircraft arrived from American bases in Japan. The stated purpose of the drills is to improve interaction, coordination and compatibility of 4th and 5th generation aircraft, to practice joint actions in case of war, and joint live firing at ground targets. A spokesman for the US 7th Air Force emphasized the “defensive” nature of the exercise, which is not related to any current real-world threats and is not intended to be provocative toward any other country.”

From October 31 to November 3, the ROK and Australian navies conducted joint exercises off the coast of Ulsan. As reported at the headquarters of the South Korean Navy, their goal was to increase operational capabilities and practice joint actions in repelling submarine attacks and air defense. The South Korean destroyer Kang Gam Chan, the frigate Gyeongnam, the P-3 maritime patrol aircraft and military helicopters took part in the exercise. Australia sent the Anzac Toowoomba-class frigate, a MH-60R Seahawk helicopter and a maritime patrol aircraft. The ROK and Australian navies have been conducting joint exercises since 2012.

On November 13, the ROK and US navies began conducting large-scale joint exercises in the Sea of Japan: ten ships of two countries, including the South Korean destroyer Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong, equipped with the Aegis multifunctional combat information and control system, and the American destroyer Rafael Peralta.” The exercise also involved South Korean P-3 maritime patrol aircraft, F-15K and FA-50 fighter jets, as well as American A-10 attack aircraft and other assets. They worked out the scenario of destroying a North Korean landing force that had intruded in the territorial waters of the Republic of Korea, and a joint fight against submarines of an opposing force.

On November 15, South Korea and the United States conducted joint air exercises over the Yellow Sea involving two American B-52H strategic bombers, accompanied by South Korean F-35A and F-15K fighter jets and American F-35B and F-16 fighter jets. In recent exercises this year, South Korea and the United States have conducted seven joint air exercises involving the B-52H bomber over the peninsula. This year they have conducted a total of 12 such exercises involving the US strategic bombers.

According to an official of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea, members of the alliance intend to increase the frequency and intensity of the deployment of American strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula, that will have an effect comparable to their permanent deployment.

In a response statement by an official of the Ministry of Defense of the DPRK, published by the Korean Central Telegraph Agency (KCNA) on November 16, it was stated that “it is the United States and its “satellites” that are the reason for the growth of tension in the region of the Korean Peninsula, escalating it “unilaterally at the level of rhetoric and actions.” However, the armed forces of the DPRK “will take even more decisive steps in response to threats from the United States, including nuclear ones, with the help of even more offensive, overwhelming retaliatory potential and strategic deterrence in the military sphere.”

On November 16, the ROK Navy and Marine Corps began a week-long landing exercise in the Pohang area of Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, in conditions as close to combat as possible. They mobilized 3,400 military personnel, naval vessels, helicopters, assault amphibious vehicles and a Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship. The goal was to improve the Navy and Marine Corps’ joint operation capabilities.

On November 26, trilateral naval US-South Korea-Japan exercises took place in southeastern waters off Jeju Island. They involved the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, South Korean Aegis combat system-equipped destroyers and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Murasame-class destroyers. The exercise was held to practice joint actions of the naval forces of the three countries in case of emergency on the Korean Peninsula. The exercise came a day after Pyongyang claimed its reconnaissance satellite took photos of the US military bases in the Republic of Korea and the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the port of Busan.

On November 30, the US Indo-Pacific Command released photos of a US Army Chemical Corps conducting joint exercises with South Korean forces near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

On December 3, the ROK media reported that on December 1, the Navy’s SM-2 ship-to-air missile designed to intercept enemy missiles and aircraft from the sea, has successfully hit its target in the first live-fire exercise involving that weapon. They took place at the new research center of the Defense Development Agency in Samcheok, Gangwon-do. As the ROK Navy officials said, the missile was fired from the Gang Gam-chan destroyer in the Sea of Japan and intercepted a target drone approaching at a high speed. Previously, the Navy’s live-fire SM-2 exercises had been exclusively conducted at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii in the absence of a live-fire maritime test site and a test analysis system at home. Officials of the Ministry of Defense also said that domesticating the missile launches would annually save at least 1 billion won (US$800,000).

On December 4, the Korea Defense Development Agency conducted flight tests of a solid-fuel space rocket. The rocket was launched at 2:00 p.m. from a barge located in the sea at a distance of 4 km south of Jeju Island. It was the third test flight of a rocket designed to put a small satellite into a low Earth orbit for surveillance operations against North Korea. The space vehicle under development uses solid fuel for the first three stages, while it employs liquid fuel for the fourth stage as it is considered easier to precisely adjust the separation of the payload. The tests simulated putting a 100-kilogram radar satellite, made by Hanwha Systems, into a low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 650 km. “Once the development of the solid-fuel space launch vehicle is complete, the South Korean military will be capable of launching small satellites designed for surveillance and reconnaissance,” the Korea Defense Development Agency said in a release. In the future, it vowed to develop a space delivery system capable of launching heavier satellites weighing 500-700 kg into a low Earth orbit.

On December 5-15, the armed forces of the Republic of Korea and the United States conducted joint exercises at the combat training center in Inje-gun County, Gangwon-do. About 4,200 military personnel and about 300 pieces of military equipment (tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, self-propelled guns, attack and landing helicopters, UAVs of various types) practiced joint actions and honed abilities to carry out combat operations.

On December 12, as a White House official said, in the near future the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan would introduce a system for exchanging data on North Korean missile launches in real time, recalling that an agreement on this subject matter had been reached at a trilateral summit at Camp David in August, 2023. The United States is working to implement the agreement and expects the trilateral missile launch data exchange system to begin operating within the next few days.

The second U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) convened in Washington D.C. on December 15, 2023. First Deputy National Advisor of the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Korea Kim Tae-hyo and Coordinator of the US National Security Council Maher Bitar adopted a joint statement. It recorded an agreement to complete the development of guidelines for the planning and implementation of a nuclear strategy by the middle of next year. The guidelines will cover issues such as the exchange of confidential information on nuclear weapons, the creation of a security system, the coordination of a procedure for consultations on a nuclear crisis, as well as the organization of constant communication channels at the level of state leaders. At the same time, a system of extended nuclear deterrence will be created. It signifies the US commitment to use the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend an ally. The program of joint military exercises planned for next year, including Ulchi Freedom Shield, includes practicing an operation involving nuclear forces.

On December 17, the US attack submarine Missouri entered the port of Busan. As informed by the ROK Navy Headquarters, the arrival of the vessel will enhance exchanges and cooperation between Seoul and Washington in the military field, as well as strengthen joint defense. This is the third visit of an American nuclear submarine to a South Korean port since the beginning of this year.

On December 18, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol said that the ROK, the United States and Japan should jointly respond to Pyongyang’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile by promptly exchanging available information. Yoon recalled the need to give an “immediate, overwhelming response” to any provocations by North Korea against the territory and people of the Republic of Korea.

Finally, there will be a two-day Taegeuk command post exercise, aimed at enhancing capabilities in crisis management and transitioning into wartime. The exercise will proceed under scenarios that reflect North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and others exemplified in recent conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war.

However, during the above discussions, the United States and South Korea agreed to conduct the first joint exercises simulating a “nuclear retaliatory strike” against the DPRK. And this is another step towards a red line, or indeed even the foot raised above it.

The United States and South Korea regularly conduct a wide range of joint military exercises. However, until now (at least officially) there have never been any training sessions within their scope to practice actually launching a nuclear strike against the DPRK. South Korea was also not allowed to resolve issues related to American weapons of mass destruction. It was decided to hold the first US-South Korean exercises to practice a “nuclear retaliation strike” against the North in August, 2024, as a part of the major joint Ulchi Freedom Shield drills. Their scenario will include testing the interaction of the armed forces of the two countries after Pyongyang uses nuclear weapons. In response, the United States will also launch a nuclear strike using strategic bombers and other carriers in combination with the rapid actions of Seoul’s conventional forces resorting to conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, special forces, etc.

In the author’s opinion, the intensity of the South’s exercises speaks for itself, especially when compared with the activity of the North, which is more limited to one-time launches and aggressive statements. However, this is the subject matter of the next article in this series.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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