By Phil Stewart and Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea and the United States on Monday revised a bilateral security agreement aimed at deterring North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threats, and vowed to maintain pressure on Pyongyang despite global distractions.
South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik and his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, signed the updated Tailored Deterrence Strategy (TDS) at security talks in Seoul, the defence ministry said.
The revision was considered necessary because the existing strategy did not adequately address rapid advancements in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, it said.
The Defence Ministry did not immediately specify what had been updated in the agreement, which holds that the United States will use strategic military assets, including nuclear forces, to defend its allies.
First established in 2010, the TDS has taken on greater significance as North Korea pushes ahead with its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
The two leaders also said they agreed to boost joint drills, as well as cooperation with Japan, to deter and better prepare for any North Korean attack.
Austin said recent visits by a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine and a B-52 to South Korea were “milestones” in deterrence efforts and that the tempo of such deployments could continue despite other global crises.
“We will continue to do the things that we’ve promised to do,” Austin told a briefing, adding that over the past year the U.S. military had deployed more to the Indo-Pacific region than in the past and was “more capable to respond to anything that could happen”.
This year South Korea and the United States have deepened nuclear planning discussions to better coordinate an allied nuclear response during a war.
Recent changes in North Korean and Chinese capabilities and intentions are likely to “dramatically” increase the risk that U.S. and South Korean deterrence could fail within the next decade, and the allies must undertake major steps to strengthen deterrence, the Atlantic Council think tank said in a study last week.
That study, which convened more than 100 experts, found that although an all-out nuclear attack is the least likely scenario, Pyongyang could feel emboldened to escalate with more limited military actions, including possible nuclear strikes.
The Israel-Hamas war and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also cast a shadow over Monday’s meeting amid Pyongyang’s growing military cooperation with Moscow and questions about the North’s support for Hamas militants.
“Despite conflicts that are happening in many parts of the world, our alliance is the most powerful alliance in history and in the world,” Shin said at the briefing.
He noted that recent live fire drills were the largest in the allies’ history, and that boosting joint exercises would ensure that North Korea can be punished “immediately and powerfully” if it attacks.
On Sunday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said at a dinner that the allies must stand ready for any provocations by North Korea, including a “Hamas-style surprise attack”.
At the reception, Austin reaffirmed that the U.S. commitment to defending South Korea involved the full range of American military capabilities, Yoon’s office said.
“The region is concerned about the focus of the United States,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“We’re involved in two wars,” Glaser said. “And then a second layer of concern … is our presidential election next year and whether this emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and an emphasis on cooperating with allies, building these coalitions, whether that’s really going to be sustained.”
The defence meetings come as North Korea is believed to be preparing to launch a military reconnaissance satellite after two failures.
Pyongyang is also accused of shipping munitions to Russia for use in the war with Ukraine in return for technical support to help its weapons programs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Russia would help North Korea build satellites, but did not elaborate.
The defence chiefs from South Korea, Japan and the United States agreed on Sunday to start a real-time data sharing scheme on North Korean missiles in December, South Korea’s defence ministry said.
“We’re seeing more trilateral cooperation than we’ve ever seen,” Austin told a briefing on Monday, hinting at announcements in the coming weeks.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Hyonhee Shin, Josh Smith and Hyunsu Yim; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Ed Davies and Gerry Doyle)