U.S. Army soldiers and its M2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles take part in the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise against possible attacks by North Korea, at a shooting range near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, about 45 km (28 miles) north of Seoul, June 8, 2011. (Photo:Reuters)
South Korea said Thursday it would create a joint military unit with the United States, as a report suggested the contingent would target North Korea's weapons of mass destruction if a full-scale conflict broke out.
The mechanised unit led by a US major general will be set up in the first half of next year, the South's defence ministry said, as part of elaborate preparations for any future war between the two Koreas.
"It will be the first combined field combat unit to carry out wartime operations," a defence ministry spokesman said without elaborating on its mission.
He declined to confirm a Yonhap news agency report that its remit would include eliminating weapons of mass destruction in the nuclear-armed North if war breaks out.
The ministry said the contingent would have a joint office of US and South Korean staff in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, where the US 2nd Infantry Division guards a strategically important area as a deterrent to an invasion by North Korea.
In the event of an all-out conflict, a mechanised South Korean brigade would join forces with the US division, which is armed with helicopters and other advanced weapons, it said.
"This would be a symbol of a strengthened military alliance between the allies," a military official said.
Because the Korean conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty, the two Koreas are still technically at war.
Nearly 30,000 US troops are stationed in the South under a bilateral military accord.
If fresh hostilities broke out, the US commander in South Korea would assume control of the South's 640,000 troops.
A transfer of command in a wartime setting was set for 2015, which would allow South Korea control of its own troops, but Seoul wants a postponement citing the increased threat from North Korea's nuclear and missile development.
In June, North Korea announced the successful test of new high-precision, tactical guided missiles, and in the following months the North conducted a series of missile and rocket tests.
Meanwhile South Korea and the United States held an annual military drill in August despite condemnation by North Korea which had threatened a "merciless" retaliatory strike.
The drill simulated the response to a nuclear attack threat for the first time, according to the South's defence ministry, using a strategy of "tailored" deterrence developed last year in the course of joint defence talks.
South Korea is protected by the US nuclear umbrella, and in wartime American soldiers in the South would be reinforced by military contingents from the continental United States and its presence in East Asia.
UN resolutions bar Pyongyang from conducting any launches using ballistic missile technology. But the North has defended its missile launches as a legitimate exercise in self-defence.