Jeong Kyeong-doo, the nominee for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman, said Friday that South Korea can secure air superiority within three days in case of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula, highlighting its war fighting capabilities amid heightened cross-border tensions.
During his parliamentary confirmation hearing, the Air Force general also dismissed growing calls for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear arms, stressing Seoul's adherence to its long-held denuclearization principle.
"It is hard to straightforwardly explain this, but I believe air superiority can be secured within at least three days in the event of a contingency on the peninsula," Jeong said, apparently referring to the aerial power of the South Korea-U.S. security alliance.
The reclusive state has recently escalated tensions by test-firing long-range missiles last month and hardening its warlike rhetoric against Seoul and Washington. The provocations triggered fiery remarks from U.S. President Donald Trump, which stoked fears about a potential armed conflict on the peninsula.
Jeong apparently hinted that the allies' combined forces can neutralize the North's air defense system within a short span of time with their overwhelming conventional aerial combat assets such as high-end fighters and precision-guided missiles.
Asked whether he views the retaking of wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington as a precondition for South Korea's "self-reliant" defense capabilities, Jeong said the issue only concerns who would lead the allied forces during wartime, and that it would not affect the allies' military capabilities.
"I am convinced that our efforts to strengthen the alliance will remain unchanged (regardless of the transfer)," he said.
The Seoul government is seeking to take back OPCON from the U.S. at "an early date." It was supposed to regain it in 2015, but the transfer has been postponed as the allies agreed to a "conditions-based" handover amid growing North Korean threats.
During the hearing, Jeong also rejected the conservative parties' demand to consider the redeployment of U.S. tactical nukes that were withdrawn when the two Koreas signed a joint declaration for a nuclear-free peninsula in 1991.
"It is inappropriate for us to consider the redeployment when we call for the North's denuclearization," he said. "I think we have to apply diplomatic and economic pressure (on Pyongyang)."
Responding to a question over whether he would consider the possibility of scaling back South Korea-U.S. military drills as part of a bargaining tactic with the North over its nuclear program, Jeong ruled it out.
"At this point in time, (I) do not consider such a possibility at all," he said.
Amid an escalating nuclear standoff, talk has surged of a possible deal under which Seoul scales back its military exercises with Washington, while Pyongyang suspends its nuclear and missile tests. Both Seoul and Washington have dismissed it.
During his opening remarks, Jeong said that if appointed, he would strive to build a strong military "feared by enemies and trusted by citizens."
"(If appointed), I will fulfill my given tasks of building a military that is feared by enemies and gives infinite trust to citizens, and of strengthening internal cohesion," Jeong said.
"If I am given the mantle of the JCS chairman, I will try my utmost to achieve strong security and responsible defense, which are the guidelines by the commander-in-chief," he added.
Shortly after the hearing, the parliament adopted a report on the outcome of the hearing, a process before his official appointment.
Jeong is set to become the first Air Force figure in 23 years to lead the military establishment long dominated by the Army. He is expected to be inaugurated Sunday. (Yonhap)