A North Korean ballistic missile emerges from the waves in 2021 in what Pyongyang claimed was a successful SLBM test. Anti-North Korea initiatives dominated the Joe Biden-Yoon Suk-yeol summit on May 21, 2022, in Seoul. Photo: AFP / KCNA

SEOUL – The leaders of South Korea and the United States agreed on a wide range of measures in their summit on Saturday, but their top action item was the reincarnation of an extended deterrence body, and on Sunday they visit a missile-tracking command post.

Newly inaugurated South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden held extensive talks in Seoul on the second day of Biden’s visit to South Korea. Biden flies to Japan on Sunday afternoon on the second leg of the first Asia trip of his presidency.

Yoon and Biden discussed a wide range of issues, listed in a lengthy White House communiqué.  

These included: commitments to deepening cooperation on economic and energy security; enhancing protection and promotion of emerging technologies, including semiconductors, eco-friendly EV batteries, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, biotechnology, bio-manufacturing, and autonomous robotics; securing supply-chain resilience; and upgrading nuclear energy cooperation.

However, Biden’s Japan visit, which begins late on Sunday, is expected to focus in more detail on regional economic initiatives and China pushback. There, Biden will unveil the long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and will convene a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

In Seoul, North Korea took center stage.

Despite a couple of American faux pas – a duo of Secret Service agents were sent home after an altercation with a Seoul taxi driver, and Biden mispronounced his host’s name – it appears that Yoon got what he wanted: Strategic commitments were to the fore.

In the lead section of their joint statement, the two leaders agreed to “initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula.”

Exercises were cut back in 2018, in order to provide space for nascent Pyongyang-Washington diplomacy, and were subsequently impacted by the Covid pandemic. North Korea customarily responds angrily to the drills, calling them invasion preparation.

Moreover, the leaders agreed to promote partnerships in areas such as defense sector supply chain and joint development and manufacturing – including beginning discussions on a Reciprocal Defense Procurement agreement. That is a nod to South Korea’s rising profile as an arms exporter.

But the key action item in their statement was a commitment to reincarnate the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), while the two leaders’ site visit on Sunday will be to the Korean Air and Space Operations Center (KAOC).

Reviving EDSCG

Compared with such potent military abbreviations as CSG (carrier strike group) ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) or SOF (special operations force), neither EDSCG nor KAOC is is very widely known.

And unlike references to prominent hardware or glamorous units, they hardly grip the imagination.

But the EDSCG is a critical body when it comes to the US erecting its nuclear umbrella in Korean skies; the KAOC is a critical military headquarters that tracks not only aircraft, but also North Korean missiles.

According to the US Department of Defense, the EDSCG was convened in 2016 after agreements between the South Korean and US foreign and defense ministers. Working-level meetings were held at the vice-ministerial level. Discussions were aimed at “extended deterrence against North Korea, including how to better leverage the full breadth of national power – using diplomacy, information, military, and economic elements.”

But military matters were to the fore. Under the body, the US committed “to draw on the full range of its military capabilities, including the nuclear umbrella, conventional strike, and missile defense to provide extended deterrence” to defend South Korea.

In an under-reported development, the EDSCG halted consultations in 2018 – the same year US president Donald Trump, after his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, unilaterally halted joint South Korean-US exercises.

That stance was welcomed by Seoul, where the Moon Jae-in administration had made engaging North Korea is key policy focus. However, Trump’s subsequent moves to monetize the presence of US troops in Korea and Japan, and his ambivalent attitude toward alliances, raised questions globally about America’s commitment to its allies.

Those questions were further amplified by the fall of the Western-supported Kabul government, on Biden’s watch, in 2021.

Though Seoul and Washington maintain a mutual defense treaty, and some 27,000 US troops remain on the peninsula, there have been wobbles over these issues in conservative circles in Seoul.

Yoon has talked up the importance of joint defense against North Korea, and of promoting the values of freedom, democracy and human rights across the region. The resumption of the high-level EDSCG looks like a win for Yoon and those voices in South Korea that have favored strengthening the US alliance, particularly when it comes to Washington’s nuclear umbrella.

In 1991, the George W Bush administration committed to withdrawing all tactical nuclear weapons back to US territory. That put non-nuclear South Korea on the back foot in 2006, when North Korean detonated its first nuclear device.

The EDSCG provides a formalized channel for South Korea to raise its voice when it comes to the deployment of nuclear-capable US assets – such as bombers and submarines – to the peninsula in times of tension with North Korea.

A retired US Army lieutenant-colonel with extensive experience in South Korea recalled to Asia Times the ad hoc nature of prior deployments of strategic assets.

“When I was involved in requesting these assets I don’t think we distinguished whether it was nuclear-capable or not,” Steve Tharp told Asia Times. “We had different packages we would offer as options for the commander, who would talk it over with the [South Koreans] and the guys back in Washington.”

Visiting KAOC

Sunday’s visit to the KAOC, situated at Osan Air Base 70 kilometers south of Seoul, is closely linked to security against North Korea. It mirrors Biden’s and Yoon’s first engagement on Friday.

The two presidents met at a futuristic semiconductor fabrication plant run by Samsung in the town of Pyeongtaek, close to Osan, where they talked up bilateral cooperation in technological component and innovation spheres – that is, economic security. Their commitment to old-fashioned kinetic defense will be reinforced on Sunday at KAOC, a secure command facility inside Osan Air Base.

Osan is home to the US 7th Air Force, the key air component of US Forces Korea. The ground component, the US 8th Army, is based at nearby Pyeongtaek.

KAOC “is a very secure facility where they track all aircraft in the skies over the Korean Peninsula,” said Tharp, who has toured the facility’s predecessor. “And with missiles being shot, there is the added value of seeing that bunker, as it tracks everything in the airspace.”

Biden was expected to make the customary tour made by visiting US presidents to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Sunday, but he had already made that trip when he was a vice-president.

The visit to KAOC appears to have been substituted for that; it is being reported as the first-ever US presidential visit to the facility.

North Korea has, so far this year, conducted 16 missile tests, including both long-range ICBMs and short-range hypersonic missiles. According to widespread military analyses, neither South Korean nor US forces currently possess the capabilities to shoot down hypersonics.

Some pundits fear that North Korea – currently racked by a possibly disastrous Covid pandemic – might test a missile, or even a nuclear device, during Biden’s South Korea/Japan tour.