Korea Crisis - Military Options
On 2 October 2013, the United States and South Korea agreed to establish "a bilateral strategy for tailored deterrence against … North Korean nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction," according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The tailored deterrence agreement would create a strategic, policy-level framework within the alliance for deterring specific threats. The agreement was signed during a meeting between Secretary Hagel and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. They also issued a joint communiqué issued after the meeting, which reaffirmed US commitments to provide and strengthen deterrence for South Korea using the full range of military capabilities, including the US nuclear umbrella, conventional strike, and missile defense capabilities, as well as providing for a comprehensive counter-missile strategy to detect, defend, deter, and destroy threats from the North Korean arsenal. Under the agreement South Korea would continue to build reliable interoperable response capabilities and develop the Korean Air and Missile Defense system and both sides would further interoperability of the alliance's command and control system.
President Bush labeled North Korea part of an Axis of Evil in January 2002, declaring it a rogue state intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction and thus posing a threat to the United States and its allies. President Bush made it increasingly clear that he wanted to see a change of government in Korea. The President said he had not decided on any specific course of action or timetable at the time of the Axis of Evil speech.
While the Administration had initially been unwilling to argue that the North Korean regime could be removed or its threat to regional stability minimized by the use of force, revelations in October 2002 concerning the DPRK's nuclear capabilities resulted in a reappraisal of the situation. On 7 February 2003 President Bush stated that "all options were on the table" to resolve the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, though diplomatic options would explored fully.
At that time, the United States had a considerable force stationed in South Korea to supplement the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA). Prior to 2004 there were roughly 37,500 total personnel in South Korea comprised of some 27,500 soldiers, nearly 8,500 airmen, and a small number of sailors and Marines. With the deployment of one brigade to Iraq, the total declined to about 32,500, including 22,500 Army soldiers. This brigade subsequently redeployed to CONUS after its Iraq deployment in 2004 leaving only 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division forward deployed in South Korea. In addition 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, Eighth US Army had access to a brigade set from Afloat Prepositioning Squadron 4. The crisis with Iraq and the significant deployment of forces to that region caused the Eighth US Army to announce a stop-movement order in February 2003 that prevented soldiers from rotating out of Korea back to the United States
In early February 2003, the Pentagon announced that 24 heavy bombers, 12 B-1Bs and 12 B-52s, had been put on alert to deploy to the region to deter any North Korean actions. By early March 2003 all of those bombers had been deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
In late February 2003, the United States began shifting forces to Korea in preparation for the annual Reception, Staging, Onward movement, and Integration (RSOI) and Foal Eagle exercises. In 2001, the exercises had been merged and were subsequently held together, being referred to as Reception, Staging, Onward movement, and Integration / Foal Eagle (RSOI/FE). The exercises were scheduled to begin on 3 March 2003 and run to the end of the month. Roughly 2 battalions (a mechanized infantry battalion and an armor battalion) of the 1st Infantry Division were deployed to South Korea to participate in the exercise, as was a squadron of F-15E's from Alaska. Additionally, 6 F-117s from the 49th Fighter Wing were dispatched to Kunsan Air Base.
Following the completion of RSOI/FE, the Army and Air Force assets that had been deployed to the region were ordered to remain in Korea. By late May 2003 there had been some indications that the 2 battalions from the 1st Infantry Division would be returning to the United States though it was unclear if or when the aircraft sent to Korea would also return.
Tensions between with North Korea increased when 4 North Korean fighter jets intercepted a US Air Force plane in international airspace over the Sea of Japan early on 2 March 2003. Two North Korean MiG-29 fighters and 2 other North Korean aircraft, believed to be MiG-23s, engaged an American RC-135S reconnaissance aircraft on a "routine mission" 150 miles off the coast of North Korea. The North Korean fighters "shadowed" the American plane for 22 minutes starting at 10:48 a.m. local time.
By June 2003, the prospects for military action had greatly subsided. At that time, the heavy bombers deployed to Guam, as well as other strike aircraft, were recalled to their state-side home bases. And by mid-2004 the prospects for military action seemed so remote that the United States announced plans to withdraw one of the 2 maneuver brigades of the Second Infantry Division, though the road home went through Baghdad. Between 2004 and 2008, the United States significantly reduced and consolidated its presence on the Korean Peninsula even further, eventually arriving at a total force of approximately 28,000 personnel. As part of an agreement with the South Korean government in 2001, the United States also worked to consolidate the remaining personnel in significantly fewer facilities. Further adding emphasis to the changing nature of tension on the peninsula, in 2006, Eighth US Army was designated as an Army Service Component Command to US Forces Korea. As such, Eighth US Army reported directly to Headquarters, Department of the Army. Also, in 2008, the annual RSOI exercise was renamed as Key Resolve. Still paired with Foal Eagle, the exercises were generally referred to as Key Resolve / Foal Eagle.
After 2008, tensions with North Korea began to escalate again, reaching a near critical point in March 2010 with the sinking in the Yellow Sea of the Pohang-class corvette PCC-772 Chonan. The South Korean and US governments subsequently determined that this had been the result of direct North Korean action, though the North Koreans refused to acknowledge any involvement. This was followed in November 2010, by a brief artillery engagement between the North and the South Korean forces on Yeonpyeong island, a major fixture in the Northern Limit Line dispute.
The escalating tensions eventually resulted in Eighth US Army being discontinued as an Army Service Component Command to the United States Forces Korea on 23 January 2012, being redesignated and assigned as an operational-level Field Army Headquarters and subordinate command of the United States Army Pacific. On 31 July 2012, the Eighth Army Commanding General Lieutenant General John D. Johnson released a roadmap called "How We Fight" to outline a revolutionary mission change as part of the shift in focus on the part of the United States Military to the Asia-Pacific region. The guidance highlighted the danger posed by North Korea and the potential for sudden regime instability, potential environmental disaster, humanitarian crisis, and the threat of WMD weapons. In December 2012, it was also announced that the US would redeploy the 23rd Chemical Battalion back to South Korea, where it had been stationed until 2004, as part of the transformation of Eighth US Army.
Tensions again reached a critical point in early 2013. The United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission notified the North Korean military on 21 February 2013 of the dates for the annual Key Resolve / Foal Eagle exercises. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea responded angrily to the US decision to go through with the exercises, which it had previously stated would lead it to pull out of the 1953 Armistice Agreement. After the exercises began North Korea disconnected its Panmunjom hotline and stated that it had renounced the Armistice Agreement. In late March 2013, the North Koreans made a significant number of threats against South Korea and the United States and on 30 March 2013 announced that "North-South relations have been put at State of War." In the first week of April 2013, North Korea announced that it would restart its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and closed off South Korean access to the jointly run Kaesong industrial park, threats it subsequently follow through on. In light of these provocations, in March 2013 the United States deployed F-22 Raptor aircraft from Kadena Air Base, Japan to participate in the Foal Eagle Exercise and further demonstrated its strategic capability by also including a B-2 bomber training mission, which saw aircraft from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri in the United States fly and drop inert training bombs on the Jik Do Range in the ROK.
Continued North Korean threats led the Defense Department announced plans on 3 April 2013 to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System ballistic missile defense system to Guam in the coming weeks as a precautionary move to strengthen the regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat. This deployment of personnel from Battery A, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, part of the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command at Fort Bliss, Texas, would strengthen defense capabilities for American citizens in the US territory of Guam and US forces stationed there. The United States continued to urge the North Korean leadership to cease provocative threats and choose the path of peace by complying with its international obligations, remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and stands ready to defend US territory, allies and national interests. The US military also positioned ballistic missile defense capable ships in the vicinity of North Korea.
With the end of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises in April 2013, North Korean threats subsided and the situation returned to relative calm. The North Koreans subsequently asked for negotiations regarding their nuclear program and worked with the South Korean authorities to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Zone in August 2013.
The US did not dramatically modify its permanent force posture in light of the crisis. On 25 July 2013, Eighth US Army established the 2503rd Digital Liaison Detachment to serve as the primary link with the Republic of Korea Ground Component Command. The 2503rd Digital Liaison Detachment would be able to conduct 24-hour operations if necessary. The detachment would strengthen the ROK-US Alliance by providing support, assistance, and advice to the ROK Ground Component Command on all aspects of US Army warfighting forces. In September 2013, it was announced that the US Army would begin rotating an OH-58 equipped attack reconnaissance battalion or squadron through deployments to South Korea to bolster the force, however. This rotational unit would be attached to 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade.
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