The United States and South Korea held a historic bilateral meeting of ministers of foreign affairs and defense (or “2+2”) for the first time on July 21, 2010, coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War. This meeting was followed by a four-day joint show of force that included the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, F-22 Raptors, and a variety of anti-submarine warfare exercises. The 2+2 meeting and naval exercises underscore high levels of U.S. support for the military alliance with South Korea and U.S. commitment to continued deterrence on the Korean Peninsula. The focus on near-term urgent issues such as coordinating an effective response to the March 25, 2010, Cheonan sinking was perhaps inevitable. However, it squeezed out the important strategic task of consolidating the alliance based on the affirmation provided by Presidents Obama and Lee through the June 2009 Joint Vision Statement. Because this task requires cabinet-level attention to guide the bureaucracy, the focus on near-term coordination may have come at a cost to the broader goals of the alliance.
The joint statement issued on the occasion of the 2+2 notes “the historic significance of the [June 2009] Joint Vision for the Alliance.” The ministers also pledged to “develop the alliance’s vision for future defense cooperation.” But during the past year since the Joint Vision Statement was announced, no apparent progress has been made in determining joint guidelines for implementing the statement. Instead, the 2+2 Joint Statement anticipates that task will be incorporated into a new plan, “Strategic Alliance 2015,” to be announced at the U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting this fall.
A coordinated approach to implementing the Joint Vision is important because it brings into alignment the respective planning, budgeting, procurement, and development of capabilities of the two militaries, enabling much closer cooperation in pursuit of mutual security objectives. Although the delay in announcing implementation guidelines allows the two sides to take into account the new timetable for revised operational control arrangements, it also suggests that the important work of implementing the Joint Vision Statement has been crowded out by urgent day-to-day issues.
Near-term issues that have preoccupied the two governments in the run-up to the 2+2 include joint coordination at the UN Security Council, which produced the July 10, 2010, UN Presidential Statement on the sinking of the Cheonan. There is a widespread perception that the presidential statement fell short of expectations due to Chinese and Russian objections, despite Seoul’s initial efforts to have North Korea named as the perpetrator of the sinking. North Korea’s Ambassador to the United Nations claimed an implausible victory at the same time that the governments of the United States and South Korea asserted that the statement in effect condemned North Korea for the incident. China and North Korea immediately pressed for a return to Six Party Talks while the U.S. allies insisted that a return to dialogue was premature. The United States and South Korea focused on planned military exercises and new sanctions against the DPRK, designed to send a message to North Korea that future Cheonan-like provocations are unacceptable as well as to put pressure on the North to take meaningful steps toward denuclearization.
U.S.-ROK coordination on the joint naval exercises drew much attention, with South Korean media reports initially suggesting that the USS George Washington would be involved in joint exercises in the West Sea/Yellow Sea. These reports, which seemed intended to push the two allies toward holding robust exercises in the West Sea, elicited China’s condemnation of the move as both an unnecessary provocation of Pyongyang and a threat to China itself. In the run-up to the 2+2, U.S. and South Korean bureaucracies were preoccupied with preparing plans for exercises that would send the right messages to both North Korea and China without unnecessarily inflaming regional tensions. Some have asserted that the resulting delays and apparent differences over the content of the exercises left an impression of weakness.
At the 2+2 meeting, Secretary of State Clinton also announced a renewed U.S. sanctions effort toward North Korea. Special Adviser Robert Einhorn visited Seoul in early August to consult on sanctions implementation and coordinate with South Korea on plans for sanctions toward both North Korea and Iran. However, Clinton’s announcement along with highly speculative South Korean media reports regarding the nature and purpose of the U.S. sanctions have raised questions about whether the two allies are on the same page in their respective understanding of the goals and desired effects of additional sanctions.
Finally, some South Korean groups continue to challenge the Joint Investigation Group (JIG)’s interim report implicating North Korea for having sunk the Cheonan with a torpedo. These dissenting views have distracted from the effort to condemn North Korea and suggest the need for the South Korean government to release a more detailed report confirming the basis for the Lee administration’s response to the incident. U.S. officials tend to support the release of a follow-on report while South Korean officials worry that additional information will not placate naysayers opposing ROK policy toward the North. Although the two governments show great confidence in the outcome of the investigation, dissenting views challenging the accuracy of the report undermine efforts to send Pyongyang a strong message.
These distractions robbed the 2+2 of the opportunity to announce measures to implement the 2009 Joint Vision Statement and focus attention on the important strategic task of guiding the bureaucracies to strengthen support for a comprehensive alliance. In fact, implementation of the Joint Vision Statement promises to facilitate coordination on immediate differences that soaked up valuable time and attention at the 2+2 meeting. Progress in implementing the Joint Vision Statement also provides an essential platform for the holding of military exercises such as the latest “Invincible Spirit”. The next opportunity for cabinet-level strategic guidance will come at the Security Consultative Meeting in the fall. Further delays could result in another missed opportunity to consolidate the U.S.-ROK alliance as a true “lynchpin” of U.S. security policy in Asia.