Pillars of the ROK-US Partnership


2013-06-26 by Richard Weitz

At the 28th Annual Conference of the Council on U.S.-Korean Security Studies combined with the International Council on Korean Studies in Seoul this week—which marks the 63rd anniversary of the start of the Korean War—a senior U.S. administration official laid out the Obama administration’s assessment  of the four pillars of the ROK-U.S. alliance, which is marking its 60th birthday later this year.

Mutual security is the first pillar.

Dong reviewed the recent cycle of threats and provocations by the DPRK—the renewed testing of a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, the third detonation of a nuclear explosive device, its unilateral statement abolishing the Korean War armistice, warnings to foreign governments to remove their diplomats from South Korea since the country had become a war zone, and the vivid threat to make South Korea and the United States into “seas of fire.”

Generating a New Defense Approach in South Korea Can Allow the US to Foster Change in the Worldwide Force Structure (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Generating a New Defense Approach in South Korea Can Allow the US to Foster Change in the Worldwide Force Structure (Credit Image: Bigstock 

The senior U.S. diplomat reaffirmed the administration’s determination not to reward North Korea for its provocative behavior and the U.S. goal of eventually eliminating its nuclear weapons program.

He insisted that the United States, South Korea, and many other countries were severely punishing the DPRK with their multilateral and unilateral sanctions.

Although more recently Kim Jong Un’s regime has embarked on a charm offensive and cycle of being open to negotiations, the United States insisted that North Korea take concrete actions to demonstrate its sincere commitment to eliminate its nuclear weapons. Were this to occur, the DPRK could “join the community of nations in a responsible manner.”

If not, the United States and South Korea were “resolved to continue to defend our citizens against North Korea’s provocations by strengthening our comprehensive, interoperable, and combined defense capabilities, to include shared efforts to counter” North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

In addition, Washington and Seoul were taking measures to strengthen the alliance’s military capabilities.

They were undertaking a “conditions-based OPCOM transition” in which South Korea would assume operational control of its own forces in wartime within the framework of a revised joint command structure. This process involves transferring a number of missions and capabilities to the ROK Armed Forces but at a deliberate pace to ensure that the alliance will retain the capacity to deter and counter North Korea’s conventional and unconventional (missile, cyber, and WMD) capabilities.

A current priority is to improve the interoperability of the combined forces by selling the ROK advanced U. S military capabilities.

For example, in mid-April, the ROK decided to purchase 36 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters; these will arrive by the end of 2007 and are fully interoperable with the Apaches already stationed in South Korea. The United States is now urging the ROK to purchase the F-35 or the F-15 Silent Eagle as part of its F-X 3 advanced fighter competition. Washington would also like South Korea to buy the Global Hawk to provide high-altitude and long-duration surveillance of the Korean Peninsula and surrounding areas.

Global Partnership is the second pillar and an expanding dimension of the developing South Korean-U.S. alliance.

South Korea is helping combat terrorism in Afghanistan, fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and conduct peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Lebanon. Under the 2011 Development Cooperation Agreement, the two countries are providing development assistance beyond Asia.  At their most recent summit meeting in Washington, Presidents Obama and Park issued joint statements on global energy and climate change issues. Within East Asia, South Korean and U.S. diplomats are coordinating their policies in the East Asia Summit (EAS), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The enormous people-to-people ties between Americans and Koreas are the third pillar of the new ROK-U.S. partnership.

Most obviously, thousands of U.S. military personnel and their families live through South Korea, more than 100,000 South Korean students study in American universities each year, millions of South Korean tourists visit the United States each year, and more than two million Koreans and Korean-Americans reside in the United States.

In addition, more than 1,200 “future” South Korean leaders have visited the United States under the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, including former ROK presidents, prime ministers, and other influential figures. Meanwhile, during the past two decades, more than 1,000 U.S. college graduates have spent at least a year as teachers in rural areas of South Korea.

The deep economic ties between South Korea and the United States represent the fourth pillar of the ROK-U.S. partnership.

The ROK is fundamentally a trading state. International commerce accounts for 90 percent of South Korea’s GDP. It has used external trade and incoming foreign direct investment to launch its remarkable economic growth trajectory and become a major global economic player, including by becoming a key member of the Group of Twenty (G-20) leading economic countries.

The United States is South Korea’s third largest national trading partner and its second-largest export market.

Since the KORUS Free Trade Agreement entered into force last year, South Koreans has imported more American cars, chemicals, and agriculture goods. ROK exports to the United States have also increased. The mutual trade in services has also grown. As a result, KORUS is contributing to mutual business opportunities, dynamic innovation, and employment in both countries.

With its provisions protecting intellectual property rights and the environment, the Obama administration has seen the KORUS as a model for future bilateral trade agreements with other countries as well as for the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Korean Defense Minister also spoke to us.

He reviewed the threat environment along the lines discussed above and related how, during the phase of DPRK brinkmanship earlier this year, he appealed to then Secretary Leon Panetta to deploy more powerful weapons systems in South Korean exercises than ever before.

In his view, the United States rose to the challenge and sent its most advanced fighters, bombers, and naval craft to the Korean theater. In his view, the appearance of the B-2, F-22, U.S. nuclear submarine, and other assets in and around South Korea helped convince the DPRK regime to back down.

One other clear theme emerged from the discussions; South Koreans need to buy more C-130s and other heavy transport aircraft, acquire more advanced ballistic missile defense capabilities such as PAC-3s and SN-3s, as well as improve their C4I and jointness, and air-ground coordination for counter-artillery.

Meanwhile, the United States needs to resource better its strategic rebalancing to Asia.

Editor’s Note: In spite of the key role of the US in South Korean defense, it is clear that European defense industry can play an expanded role.  Notably, the US did not transfer technology for a bunker busting missile, and South Korea purchased a European alternative.  Also, the South Koreans have purchased other European systems and have Russian equipment as well in its modernization approach.