Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spent four days in South Korea this week feting the sixtieth anniversary of the U.S.-ROK alliance, observing one the biggest South Korean military parades in a decade, and providing new direction to the alliance through a meeting with President Park Geun-hye and through his participation in the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) with his South Korean counterpart. Secretary Hagel’s activities and the SCM highlighted the following main accomplishments and challenges for the alliance at sixty.
The U.S.-ROK alliance at sixty is considerably stronger than it was at fifty. Ten years ago, the alliance was looking backward more than forward, and the “tripwire” concept that dedicated U.S. forces to the single mission of deterring North Korea was widely viewed by Bush administration officials as out of sync with a world in which multiple and possibly unexpected security challenges put a premium on flexibility and mobility. The departure of a U.S. combat brigade stationed in South Korea for Iraq symbolized possible U.S. withdrawal and South Koreans demonstrated in the streets against U.S. Forces Korea (USFK)’s handling of a traffic accident that resulted in the death of two South Korean schoolgirls. Today, an air cavalry squadron that recently left Iraq has been deployed to South Korea to bring the Second Combat Brigade back to full strength, South Korean public support for the alliance is well over the 70 percent level, and the United States and South Korea have deepened and broadened coordination to meet both North Korean threats and challenges off the peninsula “as active strategic partners—both here on the Korean Peninsula, and around the world.”
Media reporting from the SCM shows that South Korea and the United States have indeed recognized that North Korea now has a viable nuclear weapons capability, but the consequences of that recognition—including developments in the alliance catalyzed by North Korea’s third nuclear test last February—are directly contrary to North Korea’s interests and objectives. Rather than accepting or allowing North Korea to benefit from its nuclear development, the allies have responded firmly with a “tailored deterrence strategy” that entails the use of all available military assets to launch a preemptive strike against North Korean if there are signs of an imminent nuclear attack by Pyongyang. This strategy aims to counter perceived political and military advantages North Korea may try to gain from its nuclear and missile capabilities. ROK President Park Geun-hye has been unequivocal in her commitment to South Korea’s self-defense, stating that “the genuine value of the military lies not in waging war, but on deterring war . . . I will make the North Korean regime recognize that the nuclear arms and missiles it has been constantly pursuing are no longer useful.”
Despite the U.S. government shutdown and other Washington antics, Secretary Hagel’s presence in Northeast Asia has provided an important symbol of assurance to allies that U.S. security commitments in Northeast Asia are enduring. North Korean brinkmanship and bluster last spring served to bracket U.S. commitments in Asia from many effects of sequestration. U.S. longstanding commitments to the region are being updated in response to North Korea’s evolving threat capabilities.
Activities of the past few days have also exposed some perennial challenges in the alliance relationship that both sides must continue to manage closely, including the following:
- Transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces: Secretary Hagel and ROK defense minister Kim Kwang-jin agreed to review the timing of the transfer of wartime OPCON , currently set for 2015. Secretary Hagel acknowledged that South Korean capabilities have become “much more sophisticated, much more capable, much more qualified over the past ten years in particular.” But North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have also evolved. Although South Korea displayed dramatically expanded strike capabilities (in the form of Hyunmu-II and Hyunmu-III cruise missiles) at its Armed Forces Day parade in a clear message to North Korea, further delay in South Korea’s acquisition of capabilities necessary to take over OPCON responsibilities risks sending North Korea a contradictory message.
- Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) versus U.S.-Japan-ROK Integrated Missile Defense (MD): South Korea has attempted to develop its own air and missile defense system, arguing that the nature of the threat it faces from North Korean short-range missiles is different from that faced by Japan and the United States with regard to North Korea’s long-range missile capabilities. This argument is convenient because it also avoids unnecessarily offending Chinese sensitivities on the development of a regional defense system. But KAMD incorporates South Korean missile defense radars with U.S. early-warning data, and South Korea would benefit from an integrated system if it links to U.S.-Japan combined MD efforts. Given South Korea’s preference to avoid stark choices between the United States and China, this is one of the most vexing issues facing South Korean security planners and foreign policy strategists.
- Strengthened U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan Alliances versus Weakening ROK-Japan Ties: Secretary Hagel underscored the value the United States places on strong Japan-ROK security ties in his meeting with President Park Geun-hye, but her observation that “trust has not been built because of Japan’s leadership repeatedly making regressive remarks on historical and territorial issues” underscores the degree of difficulty that Japan and South Korea continue to face in repairing their relationship. Difficulties in Japan-ROK relations are likely to remain as a persistent obstacle to enhanced trilateral coordination among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Since Tokyo is Hagel’s next stop, he will have a chance on this trip to make the case for better Japan-South Korea relations to both sides.