South Korean defense officials say a new contingency plan with the U.S. military will allow them to immediately and decisively counter any fresh provocations from North Korea.
The Combined Counter-Provocation Plan signed Friday comes amid one of the latest periods of high tension on the Korean peninsula since an armistice 60 years ago ended armed conflict between the North and the South.
South Korean officials say the new plan does not alter U.S. forces' wartime operational control of troops on the peninsula. However, it puts South Korea in the lead to respond to small-scale provocations by the North that would not meet the threshold of full-scale war.
Ministry of National Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok says under the new agreement the South can request support from U.S. forces when North Korea makes limited provocations.
Kim says various scenarios dealing with limited provocations have been established for such a request. He says this “will help curb North Korea so that it will not recklessly provoke.”
That assessment is echoed by South Korean Army Colonel Um Hyo-shik, the chief spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The colonel says the new agreement means the South Korean military is now equipped with an improved joint readiness posture so they can "quickly and firmly punish any kind of provocations of North Korea.”
South Korean media reports say Seoul and Washington agreed to sign the plan in January, but it was delayed because U.S. officials appeared uncomfortable with the South Koreans taking too aggressive a stance that could risk provocations escalating into full scale war as well as possible conflicts on armistice rules of engagement under with the U.S.-led U.N. Command.
Senior research Yang Uk at the Korea Defense and Security Forum says before this agreement, the United States could have declined to come to the assistance of South Korea in responding to provocations short of all-out war.
Yang says now the United States will automatically respond alongside South Korea's military, if requested.
The most recent such provocation by the North occurred in November, 2010, when a South Korean frontier island was shelled, killing two civilians and two marines.
That incident came six months after 46 sailors were killed when a South Korean naval vessel was sunk.
South Korea on Monday carried out a naval drill in the Yellow Sea to mark the anniversary of the sinking of the corvette.
The South blames the North for the loss of the Cheonan warship. A multi-national investigation concluded that the coastal vessel was hit by a North Korean torpedo.
North Korea has denied any involvement in the sinking.
On Monday, the official workers party newspaper in Pyongyang, the Rodong Sinmun, accused the United States of preparing for war by calling North Korea a “nuclear criminal” to mislead the public.
Pyongyang is under various international sanctions for pursuing ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development in violation of U.N. resolutions.
The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war. A 1953 armistice, of which South Korea was not a signatory, halted three years of devastating conflict. Seoul and Pyongyang have never signed a peace treaty and have no diplomatic relations.
The United States maintains more than a dozen major bases and camps in South Korea and has nearly 30,000 military personnel posted in the