In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that the United States would do everything in its power to counter North Korea while simultaneously hedging its bets by building up strategic and tactical assets on the Korean Peninsula. As U.S. President Donald Trump tours the Asia-Pacific, reports are emerging of how the United States and its ally South Korea are preparing for a possible military conflict.
The United States is ramping up efforts to strengthen South Korea's military. On the second leg of U.S. President Donald Trump's Asia-Pacific tour, South Korea and the United States announced an agreement to eliminate the payload limit on South Korean ballistic missiles. The limitations had been put in place largely because of U.S. concerns over missile proliferation, but have been slowly lifted following South Korea's entrance into the Missile Technology Control Regime agreement in 2001. North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test in July then sparked fresh talks on revising the limits.
South Korea has long been focused on building up its independent military capabilities. The crisis in North Korea has underscored the country's need to modify its military doctrine and pursue new military technology. But the Missile Technology Control Regime and a bilateral 1979 U.S.-South Korea agreement put limits on missile payload and range. The latter has not been a concern for South Korea since it was elevated in 2012 from 300 kilometers (186 miles). The current 800-kilometer range limit is more than enough for any North Korea contingency plan. Payload constraints, however, have hampered South Korea's immediate North Korea response strategy, which requires larger payloads to go after North Korean bunkers and hardened artillery sites.
During the joint Nov. 7 press conference, Trump and his South Korean counterpart also announced the immediate start of talks to purchase billions of dollars worth of U.S. military equipment. Trump emphasized that the potential military purchases would create U.S. jobs and help close the trade deficit. Precisely what military equipment would be purchased was not specified, but anonymous South Korean government sources said working-level discussions are set to begin for Seoul to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and reconnaissance assets.
The details are still unknown, but Washington has never before sold nuclear submarines to foreign powers. A major concern in the case of South Korea would be the risk of enabling Chinese or North Korean espionage activity to gain valuable information on the technology. Though China possesses nuclear submarines, U.S. ally Japan doesn't and is constitutionally barred from acquiring them. It's unclear whether talks to sell the submarines are underway or whether a potential deal would instead include the limited transfer of certain technologies. What is clear is that U.S. military cooperation with South Korea shows no signs of slowing down.