Early next year the incoming president of South Korea will face some major foreign policy and security issues, but the potential candidates have so far been focused mostly upon domestic matters.
For this election, North Korea is causing less difficulty than usual, with the Kim Jong-un regime having been greatly affected by weather-related natural disasters and also by COVID-19. The most important foreign policy and security issues are clearly concerned with the US and China.
There are deep diplomatic differences between President Joe Biden of the US and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Biden wants Moon to abandon his peace-oriented policy toward North Korea, but Moon insists on continuing to try, despite the underwhelming results so far achieved. Can the next president of South Korea make any better progress? Biden has plenty of domestic issues to deal with, besides establishing that ‘America is Back’ after the Trump era. He really does not need a new South Korean president doing something which stirs up the current status quo on the Korean Peninsula, to which North Korea would inevitably react with fresh provocations.
Another point of contention between Seoul and Washington is Biden’s desire for the South Korean military to take a more active role in the wider region, by participating in various US-led multilateral military exercises. The incoming South Korean president will need to finesse this issue carefully if relations with China are to remain cordial.
Can the next president of South Korea initiate any new policies towards the US, China and North Korea? The truth is that South Korea’s policies towards these countries are interdependent in many different ways, and if there are any solutions to be found for this Gordian Knot, then the ROK-US alliance is the best hope we have. So how should we envisage the future of the long-standing alliance between the ROK and the US? Now is the time to discuss the constraints and opportunities facing the alliance.
Moon’s Promises to China: The Three Noes
At the time of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on South Korean soil China objected vigorously, and used its commercial leverage to punish South Korea. As a consequence, Moon was obliged to placate China by making three promises. Will these ‘three noes’ cause difficulties for the next president?
First, that the US will not deploy additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems in South Korea. US FY 2021 has no funding for additional THAADs, but there are some funds allocated for upgrading the existing THAAD to integrate it into a remote networked command and control system, together with Patriot and other systems deployed near the Korean Peninsula. This is a third and final phase based on the US adoption of the Joint All Domain Command and Control system which USFK plans to adopt shortly.
Second, that the trilateral security cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea will not develop into a military alliance. Given the dire state of relations with Japan, this promise is easy to keep for any Korean president.
Third, that South Korea will not participate in the missile defense system of the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA). In practice the THAAD deployed at Seongju has already been integrated to the MDA’s regional architecture. Staff at the Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) have implicitly acknowledged the fact. As for any further cooperation with the MDA, the MND has made clear that it prefers to develop its own missile defense system.
It seems, then, that these three noes will not seriously constrain the next president.
Hypersonic Weapons on South Korean Soil?
At the recent Moon-Biden summit, South Korea agreed to become more actively involved with the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August 2021, it is appropriate to discuss the future of the ROK-US military alliance.
China is continuing its military buildup, and seeking to extend and strengthen its diplomatic influence across the region. Against this background, it is time for the US to increase its military resources to counter Chinese adventurism.
Following Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, several nations are developing hypersonic ballistic and cruise missiles, either medium-range or long-range. Chinese and Russian weapons systems are well advanced, and the US has initiated or reactivated several hypersonic missile development projects under various names: US Navy – Prompt Global Strike (PGS); US Army – Long Range Hypersonic Weapon; US Air Force – AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon and Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile; DARPA – Tactical Boost Glide and Operational Fires and Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept.
Any deployment of such US-developed hypersonic missiles on South Korea soil would inevitably be strenuously resisted by China, much like THAAD in 2017, and could seriously unbalance South Korean foreign policy. Indeed, former US Secretary of Defense explicitly suggested that US allies, including Australia, Japan and South Korea, should allow the US to deploy hypersonic weapons to assist in the strategic deterrence of Chinese threats. Recently, however, Australia has categorically rejected any such deployment, and with none of the other regional allies happy to accept them, it seems that South Korea is off the hook.
There are several reasons for this general rejection. First, many of the proposed weapon systems are independent, but adapted to sophisticated and advanced platforms, such as Arleigh Burke class destroyers, Ohio and Virginia class nuclear submarines, and the US Army High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Developing hypersonic weapons as independent strike missiles would limit their primary utility to fixed targets.
Second, unless and until the US decides how to use them at operational bases, it remains ambiguous of how, in the case of a South Korean deployment, it would be possible to counter Chinese and Russian hypersonic medium range missiles while still operating them tactically against North Korea.
Third, there are several distinct kinds of hypersonic weapons, and military experts are divided over which of them could most effectively counter the Chinese threat without provoking China to the extent that the national security of US allies is undermined. Likewise, the operational concepts necessary to successfully use these weapons are not well defined.
There is no particular reason why the US needs to deploy hypersonic weapons on South Korean territory. There are no specific high-value targets in China’s northeastern provinces, and other US allies seem better placed for the US Indo-Pacific Command to manage Chinese threats, such as Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines.
Nuclear ballistic missiles can be identified, tracked, and classified as incoming threats by missile defense systems, for example those established by the MDA, but PGS and medium-range hypersonic missiles equipped with conventional warheads cannot be intercepted by any missile defense system. It is unclear whether the US prefers hypersonic-capable and conventional PGS weapons to the existing medium-range ballistic missiles with nuclear capability. This uncertainty opens an opportunity for South Korea, now that limitations on indigenous missile development have been lifted. New South Korean medium-range ballistic missiles would supplement US capability in countering Chinese military threats to Northeast Asian security, as well as deterring the North Korean military threat.
Other Issues Affecting the Future of the ROK-US Alliance
Some of the front runners to be the next president of South Korea have spoken about making changes to the ROK military and to the command-and-control structure of ROK/US Combined Forces Command (CFC), but they have said very little about the future of the ROK-US alliance. Some military commentators argue that the ROK should pay more attention to operational and tactical matters than to political and strategic issues, and there are a variety of topics to be considered:
First, from the US perspective, rebuilding the alliance is a priority. During the Trump era his transactional and populist approach opened up some deep divisions between the ROK and the US. Biden is now working to repair the damage, and he also wants to extend the scope of the alliance beyond its historic focus on threats to the Korean Peninsula by involving the ROK in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, a thinly-veiled project to contain China.
A related initiative targets common domains awareness, with the ROK military trying to up its game by taking new responsibility for space, electronic, information and cyber-warfare. To this end, the first meeting of a newly established ROK-US ICT cooperation committee was held on August 5, 2021. Also, the ROK Air Force has reorganized its combat development group into an air and space combat research group, so that it can share a Common Operational Picture with the US Space Force. The ROK Army and the ROK Navy are also getting more involved with space, for example the Cheonro-an satellite now monitors the surrounding seas of the Korean Peninsula, including the East China Sea.
Second, there is widespread agreement that attempts to strengthen the capacity of the ROK-US alliance should focus on doctrinal standardization, and the US is currently undergoing a great transformation of its expeditionary forces. Thus, the US Army is establishing three Multi-Domain Task Forces, for the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Arctic. The US Marine Corps also has a new mobile, agile and flexible force, the Marine Littoral Regiment designed to fight in a contested maritime environment. Likewise, the US Navy has its Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept, for which it wants to build light amphibious ships, rather than Large LHDs or LHAs.
These changes to US forces mean that the ROK will also need to change to ensure the future success of the ROK-US alliance, specifically, ROK forces must pursue both technological and doctrinal interoperability, so that they can effectively interface with the new operational concepts of the US. An integrated ROK Army, Navy Air Force and Marine Corps force has been suggested, which could then operate in combined units between the ROK and US militaries at squadron and battalion level. And perhaps the US should be invited as an advisor in developing the concepts and frameworks of Defense Reform 2050, currently under development by the MND.
Third, now that the ROK is building an aircraft carrier, close liaison with the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is needed. With the navies of South Korea and Japan both building or refitting light aircraft carriers, close cooperation is essential to ensure maximum interoperability. The US-UK agreement on cooperative CV operation is the obvious model to follow. A considerable degree of interoperability has already been established, due to the F-35B take-off and landing system which is the same on the US Navy’s CVs, but much more is possible: the US Navy has built up a vast repertoire of skills and know-how which should be shared with South Korea and Japan, for mutual benefit in the operation of CVs.
Fourth, now that the ROK is explicitly committed to more involvement in regional security, including potentially acting with USFK on South China Sea and Taiwan issues, the scope of the ROK-US alliance has broadened. Future roles and missions for CFC ROK/US will be hampered by disparities between the two militaries unless a combined combat development group is established. The US-Japan alliance has benefitted from bilateral joint research and development projects, and something similar is needed for the ROK-US alliance.
Fifth, some operational and tactical improvements are necessary. For example, the ROK and the US need to better coordinate their strategic assets with JMSDF. Specifically: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets such as Global Hawk UAVs, airborne early warning and control assets, air refueling tankers and heavy lift aircraft, aircraft carriers, and amphibious assets. Also, the US Navy needs a permanent presence in the form of destroyers at South Korean naval bases; the current arrangements with a one-star admiral, the CNFK, are inadequate to deter potential threats from North Korea and China. And the South Korean Agency for Defense Development should be working on more research and development projects together with the US DARPA, such as how to operate Manned-Unmanned Teaming between the two fleets. NATO has a variety of cooperative arrangements between multiple countries, and some of these could be usefully emulated by the ROK-US alliance.
In short, the ROK-US alliance is at a time of transition, and a lot of changes will be required to maintain the strength and effectiveness of the alliance into the future. The next South Korean president will have his work cut out.
Most presidential candidates are proposing policies toward the US, China and North Korea which simply rehash previous ideas from left or right, and in any case are based on outdated and obsolete scenarios. The world has moved on, and the ROK-US alliance needs to acknowledge the fact. When the next president of South Korea is inaugurated in May 2022, he or she will have a very full in-box: the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, ever worsening climate change, the regional impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, growing doubts about the dependability of Pax Americana, and uncertainty over the future of the global economy.
Some candidates have flirted with populism during the campaign, but South Korea’s foreign and security policy needs someone grounded in reality. Thus, it is greatly to be hoped that the next president of South Korea will have the necessary experience and qualifications in these areas, and that they will choose the very best people for the relevant cabinet appointments. It would also be helpful if he or she has clearly articulated their approach to the US, China, and North Korea so that there is a mandate for change, because change is coming to the ROK-US alliance, like it or not.
Captain Sukjoon Yoon, ROKN retired and senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Military Affairs
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