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KEI Spotlight

Navigating South Korea's Plan for Preemption

June 12, 2023

This article was published on War on the Rocks on June 9, 2023.

South Korea has invested in systems designed to preempt North Korean nuclear launch and attack missiles before they are launched and the leadership and command and control nodes that support Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction enterprise. This system is a network of interlinked offensive and defensive missiles and multidomain platforms and ultimately is undergirded by the assurance that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has sought since winning election: A more robust nuclear guarantee from the United States. 

The Biden administration has sought to manage South Korea’s interest in both nuclear weapons and preemption since taking office. And, in April, the two sides reached agreement on the first-ever standalone alliance document issued at the presidential level solely devoted to the U.S. extended deterrence commitment to South Korea. The Washington Declaration’s takeaway was the establishment of an alliance Nuclear Consultative Group, signaling a potentially unprecedented level of bilateral consultation surrounding U.S. nuclear policy and planning. However, the declaration’s mention of the Republic of Korea’s yet-to-be established Strategic Command, dubbed ROK STRATCOM for short, has received minimal attention. The Biden administration’s effort to link this command with Republic of Korea/United States Combined Forces Command suggests that Washington is willing to offer more concrete assurances to Seoul but also wants to try and limit escalation in the event of a crisis.

South Korea’s Strategic Command aims to enhance the country’s nonnuclear strategic deterrence in different ways. First, it seeks to bolster deterrence by denial — to deter North Korea’s nuclear and unconventional threats by making them infeasible or unlikely to succeed. The goal is to undermine North Korean confidence that it can achieve its objectives through nuclear coercion. Second, Strategic Command would enhance deterrence by punishment by threatening to impose substantial costs up to and including decapitation strikes against North Korean leadership in the event of North Korean nuclear or weapons of mass destruction use against South Korea. 

To read the full article on War on the Rocks, please click here.