South Korea is creating a hit squad with a mission to eliminate Kim Jong Un and his top command in the event of war, as it vows to ramp up its response to the growing threat from the North.
The formation of the military unit, originally set for 2019, has been brought forward to this year amid increasing bellicosity from the North, the defence ministry in Seoul confirmed to the Financial Times on Monday.
The hit squad, which could include as many as 2,000 troops, would be modelled on special forces operations in the US, according to state-run news agency Yonhap. The defence ministry said it would form part of a broader strengthening of the country’s military forces in the face of North Korean aggression.
Seoul will also enhance its three-pillar conflict strategy, which involves pre-emptively striking North Korean nuclear facilities, shooting down ballistic missiles and launching retaliatory air strikes, the ministry added.
It also warned of a “stern” response and “stronger, watertight” sanctions if Pyongyang proceeded with plans to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Last month Seoul applauded new UN-imposed restrictions on the North’s ability to export coal in an effort to hit the regime’s export revenues, amid suggestions that a clause in the previous sanctions designed to prevent undue suffering by the North Korean people had been used to accelerate coal sales.
However, critics of the sanctions regime say they have had little impact on the North’s nuclear or missiles programmes.
North Korea’s weapons development has re-emerged as a major potential flashpoint after the country last year tested two nuclear devices and more than 20 ballistic missiles.
The election in the US of Donald Trump, who has taken a vocal stance against North Korea’s missile programme, has also raised the stakes.
After Mr Kim used a new year’s address to claim his country was nearly ready to launch a long-range ballistic missile, Mr Trump responded that “it won’t happen”.
The development of an ICBM could give Pyongyang the capability to target the western seaboard of the US, roughly 10,000km away.
Andrea Berger, deputy director of proliferation and nuclear policy at London-based think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, said the purpose of North Korea’s ICBM programme was “to be able to hold targets on the US mainland at risk”.
“Most believe Pyongyang would not use that capability unless the leadership thought its survival was imminently threatened. But the ICBM development is still immensely worrying,” Ms Berger said.
“The consequences of miscalculation with North Korea are significant, and US allies in East Asia could think extended deterrence guarantees are weaker once the US homeland is at stake.”
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