Leaders Scratch Their Heads Over NK Threat
By Jung Sung-ki
The leaders of South Korea and the United States are set to hold their first official summit Tuesday, which is expected to lay out a ``future alliance vision'' that calls for a broader alliance partnership beyond the security arena. Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama had talks in April on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in London.
Lee is to leave for the summit this morning.
During Tuesday's talks in Washington, Lee and Obama will mainly discuss ways of deterring and countering North Korea's lingering missile and nuclear threats, according to officials of the two governments, as Pyongyang has ratcheted up tensions on the Korean Peninsula through a second nuclear test and a series of short-range missile launches.
After the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for tougher sanctions on North Korea Friday, the communist regime vowed to proceed with a uranium enrichment program and to build more nuclear bombs.
``The primary topic will be that of North Korea,'' White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday. ``The real threat of North Korea, the most forward-leaning threat from North Korea would be any effort to move weapons or weapons of mass destruction from ― or material for weapons ― from North Korea somewhere else."
Seoul officials expect the U.S. President to reaffirm Washington's provision of an ``extended nuclear umbrella'' to South Korea. A clause pertaining to the extended deterrence may, for the first time, be stipulated in a joint statement, they said.
The U.S. government has promised since 1978 that it will provide necessary nuclear deterrence capabilities to South Korea against the North in the annual South Korea-U.S. defense ministers' meetings, but the issue has not been discussed at a summit level.
Under the extended nuclear deterrence pledge, military sources here say, the U.S. military would use some of its tactical nuclear weapons, such as B-61 nuclear bombs carried by B-2/52 bombers and F-15E, F-16 and F/A-18 fighters, as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from nuclear-powered submarines. The Tomahawk missile can carry the W80-0 nuclear warhead.
The B-61 bomb is known to have an explosive power of 0.3 to 340 kilotons and believed capable of destroying North Korea's key underground facilities, while the W80-0's range is from 5 to 150 kilotons. A kiloton is equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT.
Other possible topics related to defense affairs include a review of the planned transition of wartime operational control of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul and the South's possible troop redeployment to Afghanistan, officials said.
Conservatives in South Korea have called for a delay in the command transfer timeline until North Korea's nuclear threat is substantially reduced and South Korea's military develops enough independent deterrence capabilities.
On the economic front, the long-delayed ratification of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA) will be the most important agenda item. The landmark trade deal, signed by both governments in 2007, has yet to be approved by the countries' respective legislative houses. At issue are what Washington has called lopsided auto trade and restricted shipments of U.S. beef.
``I assume they will continue the conversations that President Obama and President Lee started at the G20 on this subject,'' said Gibbs. ``The president talked about, at that meeting, some of the concerns he had with the agreement. But I assume that conversation will continue.''
Toward developing a ``21st century strategic partnership,'' Lee and Obama will also confer on joint measures to deal with global issues, such as climate change, cooperation on energy resources, poverty and the international financial crisis, according to officials. The leaders plan to announce ``the joint vision for the ROK-US alliance'' at the end of the summit.