Security and Defense Issues Facing the ROK’s Next Administration
Captain Sukjoon Yoon, ROKN,(retd)
The presidential election underway in South Korea is remarkable for its focus on domestic spending, even on a kind of economic populism. Security and defense issues, which have dominated previous elections, are hardly mentioned, despite heavy pressure from the US for closer involvement in its Indo-Pacific Strategy
There are, nevertheless, several intractable problems bearing on security which President Moon Jae-in leaves behind for his successor: a growing debt burden, COVID-19 still raging, increasing North Korean WMD threats, and China’s continuing harassment of the ROK-US alliance.
Will the ROK-US alliance be affected by the outcome the ROK presidential election?
The next administration will inherit an ROK-US alliance somewhat shaken by recent developments, and will have to decide how best to enhance the ROK’s capability to deter North Korean threats, in order to maintain the strength and credibility of the ROK-US alliance.
Facing conventional, nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, supported by China and potentially by Russia, the ROK-US alliance needs to integrate its command and control systems into a single unified structure.
The ROK and US militaries also need to establish deep and resilient interoperability, a common operational picture for the two commanders, and a joint/combined defense posture which incorporates doctrines and operational concepts within the overarching US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The ROK must enhance its complementarity, sharing the US burden by developing more active and preemptive roles, but it also has to balance ROK interests between the two great powers’ spheres of influence. This balance can be very challenging, as shown by the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in 2017, to cover the US forces stationed at Camp Humphries, which provoked economic retaliation from China.
The next ROK president will also have to firm up Moon’s promises of closer involvement with the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, intended to constrain China’s military expansionism in the South Pacific. The roles and missions of the ROK-US alliance will have to be extended, and perhaps the ROK will join US-led multilateral mechanisms, such as QUAD Plus or AUKUS Plus.
Following the 9/19 comprehensive military agreement between the two Koreas, which removed both side’s guard posts in the DMZ, and also the attempt to transfer wartime operational authority (OPCON) to the ROK military, the current combined defense posture against North Korea has been significantly weakened.
The next president, whether liberal or conservative, will oversee the expansion ROK’s roles and missions in several ways: resuming field-based combined drills, agreeing the details of Strategic Guidance Planning, rewriting Operational Plan 5015, and enhancing integrated deterrence in all domains.
How should the next administration respond to Chinese military expansionism?
President Moon has tried to exercise some strategic autonomy, to choose one or other of the great powers according to the situation. But this so-called security/economy separation has proved difficult to implement.
From the Korean perspective, the most important quarrel between China and the US concerns the South China Sea (SCS). The OPCON issue is relevant here, because the ROK military holds this authority in peacetime, which is transferred to the US military in wartime. But the current situation in the SCS can be regarded as a peacetime operation, and there is thus no specific reason for the ROK-US alliance to become caught up in SCS or East China Sea (ECS) issues, and similarly for the Taiwan situation.
The ROK’s position on the SCS has been low-profile, and there is no reason to change this stance, as the ROK is not directly involved. The ROK-US alliance has always focused on North Korean military provocations, and there are non-military ways for the ROK to support the US and ASEAN in the SCS. For example, by endorsing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, by working toward a binding Code of Conduct, and through cooperating in other international initiatives concerned with the maritime environment, and with adapting to climate changes.
The recent Malabar 2021 naval exercises were explicitly designed as a rehearsal for containing China, so for the ROK to join QUAD would be unnecessarily provocative. The ROK participates in other multilateral security dialogues, such as the East Asia Summit, and the Asia-Europe Meeting, and the Moon administration has already agreed to support some QUAD sub-committees dealing with non-military issues. This kind of semi-detached observer status is unlikely to disturb China.
China’s military might is deployed in the SCS, the ECS, and near Taiwan, with little prospect that the seas around the Korean Peninsula will soon be targeted. Japan has taken a somewhat surprising interest in Taiwan’s security, claiming that Japan’s own security is compromised by the geographic disposition of Chinese military forces in the region, but the ROK has no such concerns.
The ROK is facing steadily increasing conventional, nuclear and missile security threats from North Korea, and needs to focus its foreign policy and military policy on the Korean Peninsula. For the ROK to become too closely identified with US-led anti-Chinese policies would be a serious strategic error.
Managing the ROK’s relationship with Japan: Is closer trilateral security cooperation essential?
The US clearly wishes that trilateral security cooperation with Japan and the ROK could be strengthened, but is reluctant to become involved in discussing or commenting on the issues which divide its two most important East Asian allies. The US takes no position on the historical injustices perpetrated by Japan, which still cast a long shadow today, such as forced labor and sexual slavery. Having suffered as victims, Koreans feel let down by the US failure to acknowledge the asymmetry of the situation. Even on such less emotionally fraught issues as the status of Dokdo, or the naming of the sea between the two countries, the US is silent.
Domestic sentiment in the ROK will limit the ability of the next administration to repair ROK-Japan relations, even if they are disposed to attempt it. The US Indo-Pacific Strategy needs Japan and the ROK to mend fences, but the US still refuses to get involved. Moreover, there are other difficulties hindering closer trilateral security cooperation, such as the poor level of interoperability between the ROK military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
Military tensions between two Koreas have been managed for seven decades by the ROK-US alliance, in which the US has dominated, but the ROK is now becoming a more capable and complementary partner. Given the extreme domestic sensitivity which any ROK administration would face which moved closer to Japan, together with the fact that the targets of the trilateral alliance, North Korea and China, have their own historical grievances against Japan, the US cannot reasonably expect the ROK to become Japan’s buddy anytime soon.
China and North Korea are a real threat to Japan, just as they are to the ROK, and a military crisis involving China might begin on the Korean Peninsula, but it would quickly escalate beyond it, with preemptive attacks on major US bases across the region, and on Japanese bases also. Any security situations short of such a dire conflict will continue to be managed through existing mechanisms, such as the General Security of Military Information Agreement. At present there is no prospect of closer military relations between Japan and the ROK.
Can the ROK sustain its middle power status during intensifying US-China strategic competition?
Some theoretical analyses discuss the concept of middle powers, which in East Asia would include the ROK, Japan, India, Australia, and ASEAN. This status is not recognized by the US or China, but in practice they both compete for the support of these middle powers. The ROK is well established as a responsible and effective middle power, with substantial diplomatic, military and economic clout.
Like any other nation, the ROK tries to pursue its national interests, for which a credible defense posture against North Korea is fundamental. The concept of middle-power status is sometimes understood as a way to avoid involvement in US-China rivalry, but the ROK stance is more accurately characterized as strategic autonomy. The ROK has been more successful than the other regional middle powers in carefully balancing between the US and China, shifting its position as events require, to maintain its national interests. The most recent challenge to the balance is the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is widely perceived as directed against China. President Moon has committed the ROK to some involvement in this policy, as yet vaguely defined, and in the long term it is still plausible for the ROK to survive as a reasonably autonomous middle power.
What should the next administration consider in formulating its national security and defense strategies?
The next ROK administration will face some formidable challenges. The US decline as a world power is particularly obvious in East Asia, where it may become difficult to maintain the kind of liberal and democratic good order now enjoyed by South Koreans. China continues to build up its economic and military power, and clearly intends to reestablish the regional dominance it lost in the 19th century, with something like a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine. If the US weakens, or loses interest, then China will make the SCS and ECS into Chinese possessions, and the seas around the Korean Peninsula will be next. China also maintains North Korea as a buffer against ROK and US influence, and since the North Korean economy is dependent on China, the Kim regime is a useful tool for China to threaten or distract the ROK, the US, and also Japan.
President Moon’s summit with US President Joe Biden, in May 2021, laid out some strategic policies which the next ROK administration will likely adopt without alteration. His policy towards North Korea is more contentious, however: he has consistently attempted to promote peace, for example through the 9/19 agreement to reduce military tensions, and also with the suspension of ROK-US combined drills since 2018. The recent North Korean missile launches are seen by many as demonstrating the failure of Moon’s security policies, and the next president will doubtless make some changes.
The incoming administration may try to repair ROK-Japan relations, as the US desires, but this may only be lip service. A part of the ROK population want policies to put South Korean interests first, by responding to events through balanced and flexible diplomacy, and for reducing the threat from North Korea without engaging in serious conflict. This would be easier if the new president improves relations with China.
By contrast, many South Koreans want to draw a line under the Moon era by reinforcing the ROK-US alliance. This may entail an expansion to areas beyond the Korean Peninsula, most likely the South Pacific region, but the next administration will surely not join QUAD or AUKUS, though it may get involved with associated non-military projects, such as supply chain mechanisms, AI adoption, supplementary semiconductor provision, space and cyber-domain security, and public health improvements.
In conclusion, the ROK’s strategic autonomy is inevitably affected by the rivalry between the US and China. The next administration’s foreign policy and military strategy will certainly involve reshaping the ROK-US alliance, but whatever the presidential candidates say during the campaign, any new president will have to respond flexibly to a constantly changing security environment.
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