World

South Korea is speeding up arms buildup to counter North, its leader says

SEOUL — President Moon Jae-in said Thursday that South Korea’s military would speed up efforts to strengthen its pre-emptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory capabilities against North Korea, and he renewed his call for the armed forces to become less dependent on the United States.

In a speech to mark South Korea’s Armed Forces Day, Moon said he would push for the South to move more quickly to retake wartime operational control of its military from the United States. Since the Korean War in the early 1950s, the terms of the countries’ alliance have called for a US general to command the South’s 650,000-member military should war break out.

Moon and other liberals have campaigned for South Korea to play a greater role in the alliance, and they have long called for the country to resume responsibility for wartime command as soon as it can feasibly do so. But the idea has gotten more public support as remarks by President Trump have led many South Koreans to doubt his commitment to defend the country.

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Moon said Thursday that a more self-reliant military could make itself stronger and more feared by North Korea. But he also said the South should strengthen its alliance with Washington. An aide to Moon said this week that the allies were working on ways to move strategic US military assets into the region more frequently, to help deter North Korea.

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“The top priority is to secure abilities to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile threats,” Moon said.

Since Moon assumed office in May, North Korea has conducted at least nine missile tests, two of which involved intercontinental ballistic missiles. On Sept. 3, the North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. And the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has been exchanging increasingly bellicose threats with Trump.

Moon has been more aggressive than his conservative predecessors about building up the South Korean military. After he met with Trump in New York last week, Washington agreed to sell more sophisticated weapons to South Korea.

During that meeting, the United States and South Korea also agreed to expand the deployment of US strategic military assets to South Korea on a rotating basis, possibly by the end of the year, Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told South Korean political leaders on Wednesday.

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Chung did not say what those assets would be, but in recent years, the United States has often sent long-range strategic bombers and nuclear-powered submarines to South Korea for military drills.

In his speech Thursday, Moon said his government was accelerating work on three military programs: a preemptive strike system known as “Kill Chain” that would target North Korean missile sites; an air and missile defense system; and a program designed to launch devastating strikes against North Korea’s military and political leadership should it start a war.

He said the South Korean military should become strong enough to retake its wartime control from the United States, and to “play a leading role in establishing a stronger and more stable combined defense system” together with the United States. South Korea handed over operational control of its military to an American general in 1950, when the United States rushed troops to the Korean Peninsula to fight the Korean War. The war ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, and tens of thousands of American soldiers have been based in the South ever since. The South regained peacetime control of its military in 1994, but the United States would still command combined American-South Korean forces in the event of war.

Washington agreed in 2007 to return wartime command to Seoul by 2012. But the target date was pushed back to 2015, and then again to the mid-2020s, as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs advanced and doubt surfaced over whether the South’s military could build up its capabilities quickly enough to take the lead in its defense.

Also on Thursday, Malaysia barred its citizens from traveling to North Korea because of the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

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Malaysia’s relations with North Korea have deteriorated since the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February. Malaysia said North Korean agents had hired two female assassins to kill Kim with a nerve agent.