The Moon-Biden Summit and the ROK-US Alliance: Trouble Ahead?
Captain Sukjoon Yoon, ROK Navy (retired)
Senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs
A Difficult Meeting of Minds?
A summit meeting took place on May 21 between President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and President Joe Biden of the US. At many previous summits North Korea has been the most important issue discussed, but the remarkable joint statement released shows that this one was clearly focused on China. The alliance between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the US has always been predominantly military in character, but it is now being integrated into the broader US Indo-Pacific Strategy concerned with more general regional and global issues.
Moon went into the summit hoping that the new US president would offer some kind of support for his Korean Peninsula peace initiative, which has been an important part of his domestic political platform. Biden’s priority is China, and he worries that South Korea is too reliant upon China to remain a staunch US ally. Biden’s policy on North Korea is essentially negative: to avoid the mistakes of previous US presidents. So Moon and Biden are in very different places, but somehow they managed to reconcile their positions. The summit joint statement will be presented as a win for both presidents, but Moon has been obliged to recalibrate South Korea’s balancing act between the US and China, and to that extent the US has come out ahead.
South Korea and the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy
Moon has made a significant policy shift: by accommodating Biden’s new vision for the US Indo-Pacific Strategy he has tacitly involved South Korea in the US-led attempt to contain China. Although China was not directly mentioned in the joint statement, there were references to the South China Sea (SCS) and Taiwan, and also to human rights in Myanmar, supply-chain cooperation for semiconductors and COVID-19 vaccines, enhanced cooperation in space and cyber security, and South Korean investment in innovative technologies such as AI, 5G and 6G, and electric vehicle batteries. In effect, by accommodating with US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, the ROK-US alliance has been expanded beyond the military sphere: it now encompasses global humanitarian issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, and also technological innovation.
For four years Moon has carefully avoided any suggestion of standing with the US against China. He has played down the importance of the Trilateral Security Cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea, and steadfastly declined to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia. But now South Korea is apparently ready to cooperate with the US on sensitive regional issues, such as Taiwan and the SCS situation. The prospect of South Korea actually becoming involved in directly opposing China, either in the SCS or the Taiwan Strait, is, however, remote, at least while the North Korean military threat continues. So South Korea’s diplomatic contribution to this new vision of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy will likely be limited to rhetorical support for a rules-based regional security order. For time being, South Korea has enough on its hands in trying to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
Examining the State of the ROK-US Alliance
The summit joint statement gives the impression that the military alliance between South Korea and the US is in great condition, and going from strength to strength, but there are several reasons to doubt whether things are really as healthy as Biden and Moon would have us believe.
First, since Moon took office, he has significantly weakened the combined defense posture with the US. In the name of exercising military sovereignty he has sought to expedite the taking back of operational control authority in wartime (OPCON transfer) from US Forces Korea (USFK) to the ROK Armed Forces. This is being implemented in three phases: initial operational capability was verified in 2019, and Moon was hoping for full operational capability this year and full mission capability next year. The ROK Military Reform 2.0 initiative was intended to make the ROK military more independent and autonomous, so as to meet the condition-based OPCON transfer agreed in 2014. At that time three conditions were set for a smooth and effective transfer: the ROK should acquire some key military capabilities necessary to lead the combined defense posture, the ROK should be capable of effectively countering North Korean ballistic nuclear missiles, and the security environment of the Korean Peninsula should be conducive to an OPCON transfer.
Despite none of these conditions having been met, Moon had been insisting that OPCON transfer should be completed before the end of his presidential term. But the summit joint statement reiterates that OPCON transfer will depend on capabilities, to be determined by the US, and would not simply follow Moon’s timeline. The incoming commander of USFK, Paul LaCamera, stated this policy distinctly in his confirmation before the US Congress. The summit joint statement leaves the details ambiguous, however, of exactly how OPCON transfer will be implemented and how a new Combined Forces Command (CFC) led by a ROK four-star general will be established.
Second, since the 2018 Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, ROK-US combined military exercises have been postponed or canceled, initially by Trump’s unilateral decision and then by the 9/19 military agreement between two Koreas’ militaries. Without such regular in-person field exercises to train Korean conscript forces and for CFC to practice, the combined defense posture against North Korea has seriously deteriorated. The long-established Ulchi Freedom Guardian, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises have been called off, and the more limited Dong Maeng military exercises have been conducted virtually.
Despite this inadequate testing and verification of the combined defense posture, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that criticism has been muted. At his congressional hearing, General LaCamera made clear that he will reassess the situation, putting more emphasis upon in-person field exercises in the second half of 2021. Unfortunately, the summit joint statement did not clarify exactly how the combined defense posture would be enhanced, and meanwhile North Korea has developed new strategic ballistic missiles.
Third, this summit entirely failed to address the crucial issue of how to deter the North Korean nuclear and missile threats. The summit joint statement does not explain how the traditional close security coordination between the allies can be strengthened enough to provide a military solution to this problem. Politically, Moon is still insisting that diplomatic efforts comprising goodwill and generous inducements can persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, but very few South Koreans really believe this, and almost no Americans: the history of the Kim regime offers absolutely no grounds for such optimism.
Moon seems intent on pursuing his plan for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, and now he can point to Biden’s agreement that future talks with North Korea will be based upon the 2018 Panmunjeom Declaration between Moon and Kim and the Singapore Joint Statement released by Kim and Trump. The ROK military will see this as an empty victory, however, and will also be worried that Moon has moved South Korea a step closer to the US position of explicit containment of China, without knowing how China will respond, for example by allowing North Korea more freedom for military provocations.
Some Challenges for the ROK-US Alliance
First, the ROK and the US need to decide upon a new mechanism to shape the future of the CFC. It seems that the Korea Integrated Defense Dialogue meeting, the natural forum for such discussions, is not up to the job: it lacks expertise and wastes energy on unimportant issues. The latest meeting, held May 12-13 in Washington DC, was unable to contribute much to the summit and made no progress towards formulating the future of the CFC. Only three substantive agreements relevant to the ROK-US alliance came out of the summit, all of them technical issues: Biden’s promise to provide COVID-19 vaccines for all of the 550,000 ROK Armed Forces; the lifting of restrictions in place since 1979, so that the ROK military can now operate medium- and long-range missiles; and enhanced space-based technological cooperation between the ROK and US militaries. Apparently there was no discussion of the fundamental differences between the ROK and US positions on the future of the alliance. A new crisis management system needs to be established, not only for the North Korean threat, but also for other regional security issues, and specifically to ensure that the future CFC structure operates smoothly. Otherwise OPCON transfer will certainly not be possible during Moon’s term.
Second, the alliance needs to prepare a plan B for dealing with North Korea, if, and likely when, Moon’s final chance to achieve a peace settlement fails. Moon must not be tempted to accept any kind of agreement with North Korea, when the details of their nuclear weapons and missiles are still to be revealed. Committed doves in Moon’s administration argue that US intelligence agencies are perfectly capable of characterizing the North Korean arsenal, but the US cannot observe underground development facilities and tunnels under airfields. Ultimately, the security of South Korea will likely depend upon enhancing the effectiveness of the ROK-US combined defense posture, so the ROK and US militaries must start working on a back-up operational plan.
Third, now that the ROK-US alliance is expanding its role to encompass regional security issues, such as the SCS and the Taiwan crisis, new principles will be required to broaden coordination, in particular how to integrate USFK and USFJ under the authority of the United Nations Command. This is within the remit of the US Global Force Posture Review. Both the summit press conference and the joint statement committed the ROK-US alliance to getting involved in sensitive regional issues, by standing together to safeguard free and open navigation and to promote a rules-based regional order and international law, but the details of this challenging vision will require a lot of work.
For the present the ROK-US alliance remains intact, but there is considerable uncertainty about its future. There is an expanded vision for the Indo-Pacific Strategy, in which South Korea plays a bigger regional and global role, both in security terms and more generally. But it is unclear whether any real-world changes will result, beyond rhetoric. And the summit provided very little information on what the US and South Korea are actually going to do about the nuclear and missile threats of the deeply intractable North Korean regime.
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