Two month ago in Seoul, after a 5-year interlude, the ROK and the US held 2+2 talks between their foreign and defense ministers. The stakes are high at this important juncture. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has only one year left to implement its nuanced strategy toward US and North Korea, following the contentious DPRK-US summits of the Trump era. And new US President Joe Biden is in a hurry to clear up Trump's mess by reestablishing US global security alliances around the globe: 'America is Back.' It was anticipated that the US would urge the ROK to sign up to a new foreign and diplomatic initiative, as yet undeclared and perhaps unformulated, intended to manage relations with China and North Korea. Some commentators have speculated that if the ROK does not play ball then the US would likely wait for a more cooperative administration, holding only ceremonial meetings for the time being.
Let us look at the context of the meeting. The US team visited Japan, South Korea and India. To Tokyo first, to ensure that they are on the same page with Washington regarding North Korea and China, then to Seoul, which US President Biden perceives as a weak link in his policy of containing China. South Korean President Moon's administration will surely hold firm against US pressure to change its stance on North Korea and China. Although Biden often refers to Indo-Pacific Region, he does not mention the Indo-Pacific Strategy because he wants to signal a significant policy shift: ‘America First’ is over. The Moon administration sees President Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy as overtly directed against China, and will therefore not consider joining QUAD.
The US team is visiting these countries before Biden announces the results of his policy review on China and North Korea. Japan is happy to toe the US line, whatever that may be, but to US eyes South Korea is altogether too well-disposed toward China and North Korea. India too has distinct views on dealing with China and the Indo-Pacific region, so the US wants to collect observations and impressions from all three countries in hopes of narrowing some substantial differences of opinion. For its part, the Moon's administration would like to continue to play an active role by implementing some of the policies agreed by the DPRK-US talks at the Singapore summit.
Biden sent his diplomatic and military heads to visit these three countries immediately before the crucial meeting in Alaska between high-level policy makers of the US and China. While the Biden administration might hope to enlist all its regional allies and partners to stand together against Chinese economic coercion and military expansionism, for now the US will be content if they speak with one voice on democracy and human rights. In the ongoing US-China strategic competition, these issues provide a useful stick with which to attack the Chinese, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea, however, will continue to balance carefully between the US and China and is most unlikely to buy in to any explicit condemnation of China.
Against this background, then, what was discussed and what was decided the during the 2+2 talks between the US and the ROK?
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin raised one of the most difficult issues: how to develop the future of the alliance. The US sees the ROK as an essential bulwark in maintaining the security of Northeast Asia and also in protecting democracy and human rights. To this end, Austin advocated the expansion of the ROK-US alliance into a regional and global structure with a much broader agenda, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and even Myanmar, to which President Moon referred when he received the two US secretaries in the Blue House. The US wants to reinvigorate the trilateral security cooperation between the US, Japan and the ROK, and would also like South Korea to become a member of QUAD Plus. Regarding the controversial OPCON transfer, Austin made clear that both militaries need more time to complete procedures for Full Operational Control (FOC) in the event of a condition-based OPCON transfer.
ROK Minister of National Defense Suh Wook said that the ROK military had done its best to conduct the first half of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) exercises. He also mentioned the desirability of improving cooperation with the JASDF, but that with the current state of relations between South Korea and Japan this would be difficult. Suh hoped for OPCON transfer to be completed before May 2022 by the end of President Moon's term of office, but given the three essential conditions, more time was required: both ministers declared their agreement on this issue. In response to Austin's explicit request for ROK involvement in QUAD, Suh stated that he hoped to find some indirect ways to contribute to the support of QUAD, and mentioned that the South Korean armed forces chiefs had recently talked by telephone with defense chiefs in Australia, India and NATO, to discuss enhanced cooperation.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reported that, at the 2+2 talks in Tokyo, the US and Japan had fully agreed on all issues about China and North Korea. He expressed his concerns about the violation of human rights in North Korea, and asked for the common interests and values shared by the US and the ROK to be given greater weight in Moon's polices toward China and North Korea. Blinken did not use the North Korea denuclearization terminology of the Trump administration, but of course he mentioned North Korea nuclear and missile threats. He wants to use the democracy and human right issues as tools to pressure North Korea and China, and would like the ROK to follow this approach. The US wants China to do more about North Korea, and this leaves no room for the ROK to improve relations with the North. Blinken referred to the way that China had punished the ROK for allowing THAAD deployment and warned that similar problems would occur in the future. He urged the ROK to make common cause with the US in defending democracy against Chinese coercion, arguing that the trilateral security cooperation and involvement in QUAD Plus were the most effective way for the ROK to achieve this.
ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong insisted that South Korea cannot afford a lop-sided strategy, because the ROK economy depends upon trade with China, so that strategic ambiguity is inevitable. He argued that it is counter-productive to allow Sino-US competition to overshadow Korean issues. Cheng wants a more nuanced approach so that the ROK can make better progress with North Korea, pointing out that South Korea is only intermediary available to connect the DPRK and the US without the involvement of China.
Despite their differences, Chung and Blinken agreed that the problem of North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons is an urgent one, and requires close cooperation. Their diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful solution will be based on working together with a coordinated strategy, not a common strategy. The US and the ROK also held a signing ceremony for the 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA). This commits the ROK to paying 1,183 trillion won ($1,051 billion) in 2021, a 13.9% increase from 2019, and to rising payments over the next four years at a rate which tracks the increase in the ROK’s own defense spending.
Uncertainly remains about the CFC exercises: will they help to complete FOC procedures? Notably, the first-half exercises were completed via CPX-based computer simulation scenarios, rather than the FTX-based ones which the USFK required. So the US four-star general Abrams conducted these exercises from March 8 to 18 without any substantial outcomes, and the FOC procedures were not mentioned, so presumably FOC was not implemented during the first-half drill. Is it possible for the second-half exercises to provide clarification or qualification for FOC?
Now that the 2+2 talks have agreed that OPCON needs more time to establish further procedures, it appears that President Moon has abandoned his schedule for the first year of OPCON transfer to be 2022. This may be why Moon has ordered the MND to build a light aircraft carrier (CVL). He has also directed the JCS and DAPA to complete associated procedures in strategic documents, such as the mid-term plans of MND and JSOP. It therefore seems that he is trying to reassure US policy-makers that the alliance between the ROK and the US has a strong and reliable future in which the ROK will contribute effectively to containing North Korea and discouraging China's military expansionism. It would be a great demonstration of this intention if Moon commits to buying F-35Bs for the CVL in the near future.
To summarize the outcome of these 2+2 talks, the US sought to repair the strained alliance between the ROK and the US, after a similar, successful visit to Tokyo, but Seoul proved a much greater challenge. Positive results for the US: a less active pursuit of OPCON Transfer by the Moon administration, the agreement on increased payments for the SMA, and the prospect of buying more weapons and equipment from US companies to operate the CVL. Negative results for the US: the ROK has declined to join QUAD Plus, military cooperation with the JSDF will not soon be harmonized, and the US-ROK alliance is still centered on North Korea rather than the much broader agenda which the US desires.
Korean reactions to the 2+2 talks were predictably mixed. Liberals were disappointed with the outcome: they view the future of the ROK-US alliance in terms of the changing geopolitical environment, declining US influence and China’s rise. They seek a more autonomous security framework, and saw this meeting as an opportunity promote a pan-Korean approach to a peace settlement and denuclearization. They also want to expedite final verification of FOC for OPCON transfer. Conservatives criticized the Moon administration for naively believing in Chinese and North Korean statements on denuclearization. They fear that half-hearted cooperation with the US by the ROK will erode the security alliance, leading ultimately to the withdrawal of USFK from Korea.
In conclusion, the ROK came out ahead at these talks, for the moment, anyway, with the US largely unsatisfied. Even though the US brought its big guns, the ROK held out for strategic autonomy, or at least strategic ambiguity, in dealing with North Korea and China. There may be no public disagreement revealed between the US and the ROK, but the cracks will likely grow wider and deeper. The US will surely be looking forward to the next ROK administration in 2022.
Navy Captain Sukjoon Yoon, retired, senior fellow of the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.
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