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US, South Korea eye shift in rules of engagement on North Korea

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No formal change announced, but understanding reached

Neither General Han nor Mullen went into detail on changes in the rules of engagement, but Han said South Korea and the US had “agreed to strongly respond to North Korea’s additional provocations.” They would, he said, be “refining” plans “for the alliance to resolutely respond to further North Korean aggression.”

South Korean analysts believe the two came to a definite understanding.

“They have more freedom in the choice of weapons,” says Kim Tae-woo, a vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “It is an historical change” – the first, he says, “since the Korean War.”

Mr. Kim a member of South Korea’s presidential commission for defense reform, says “the green light was given even though Mullen did not say so openly.”

US support for any shift in rules of engagement is essential in view of the US-Korean military alliance, dating from the Korean War, and overall US command responsibility for all forces in the South in time of war. The US would not assume command of South Korean forces in response to a relatively minor attack, such as that on Yeonpyeong island, but US agreement is wanted for any essential policy shifts.

Buildup of tensions

Mullen arrived here just as a newly appointed defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, who had also served previously as chairman of South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff, was settling into his post with a mandate to vastly improve South Korea’s defenses. South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak appointed him amid widespread criticism of the poor state of the South’s defenses.

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